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.”
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, scenes and Gabriel Kahane’s fine music performed by a first-class ensemble 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 ‘40’s 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.