05/23/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Art Real Estate: February House at the Public Theater

Of the brownstone at 7 Middagh Street, the basis of a new musical, February House at the Public Theater, the composer/ writer Paul Bowles used to say he did not want to live in a place with another composer. He was referring to Lincoln Kirstein. When he heard the rent would be cheap, he moved in. W.H. Auden managed the whole thing, he recalled, collecting money and making dinners. Then Bowles would stick up his nose in perfect Audenesque, and mimic the famed poet, "Tonight there will be a roast, two veg and a savory, and no discussion of religion or politics."

Neither Bowles nor his wife Jane or Kirstein made the cut for February House. Seth Bockley's lively book focuses instead on other hugely colorful residents: Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh), Wystan (that's Auden, Erik Lochtefeld) and his reluctant lover Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively), Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek) and his partner Peter Pears (Ken Barnett), and Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik) whose demure strip tease managed to pay the lion's share of expenses. She was writing her best-selling thriller, The G-String Murders, and her agent was the house's founder George Davis (Julian Fleisher), fiction editor at Harper's Bazaar with an eye to antiques and silken robes. The politics in question, the war on the other side of the ocean, is a presence in absence.

This musical is like the house itself, a noble experiment: the art, its dedication to period and historic detail, to the authentic sound, is more ambitious than the result. Still, under Davis McCallum's direction, and Gabriel Kahane's fine music performed by a first-class ensemble, scenes can be affecting: character pairings provide a sense of these artists' liaisons and longings. McCullers may have fled her marriage to Reeves McCullers (Ken Clark), but her kissing scene with Erika Mann shows another side. Their duet, "Wanderlust," is too brief in its desire to escape, counterpoint to the duet by Wystan and Chester, expressing the utopia of this Brooklyn retreat. Why leave? Kahane's "A Certain Itch," a witty revulsion to bedbugs sung by the twinned fops Pears and Britten, evokes the art song genre of the '40s favored by the house's composers. Three Auden poems are deftly set to music.

George Davis claimed the house appeared to him in a dream. By the overlong, wistful "Goodnight to the Boardinghouse," "Wanderlust" was a dream.

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