May 13th, 2012

La Loge

February House

It never rains but it pours.  In this case, plays.  We notice that things are about to close, or friends suggest something they'd like to see, then somebody offers an extra ticket, and what do we say?  "Sorry, we're going out a lot this week, we've got work to do?"  Nooooo.  We say, "Yes, please; we'd love to."  And we do.  That adds up to five this week--counting today.

First up was February House at the Public Theater.  This was a double-date with new friends, who love the theater as much as we do.  I knew it was a musical, and that it was about a boarding house in Brooklyn in 1940 where a bunch of musicians and writers lived, but that's it.  I love the Public and I love not knowing what I'm in for, so all systems were go for a pleasant evening.  And that's what I got--and maybe a little bit more besides. 

February House is a musical in the tradition of late Sondheim and plays like Light in the Piazza rather than Gypsy or Carousel.  There's nothing like a production number, no dancing (except a little light ballroom during a rent party), no chorus, a tiny cast, no lead, ingenue, antagonist, second lead, or clown figure.  There's not even, strictly speaking, a protagonist, since the focus of the play shifts from character to character depending on what's going on in the world and in their intertwined lives.  Insofar as there is a center to the play, it's George Davis (played by Julian Fleisher), who opened the down-at-heels February House in 1940 as a kind of artistic flophouse, and whose "writer's menagerie" included Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden and his lover Chester Kallman, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Erika Mann (Thomas Mann's activist daughter), and Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote The G-String Murders there.  What he wanted to create was a safe haven for the rum, the gay, the unsure, and the dispossessed, a family that would accept same-sex love and weather artistic tantrums and foster new and wonderful novels, plays, operas, poems, and relationships.  In a limited way, he succeeded--the limitation being the twin realities of WWII and the abject poverty of everybody involved in the project, which often set leaking roofs, broken furnaces, skimpy dinners, cut-off telephones, and bedbugs between the artists and any hope of creating their art.  But before the experiment falls apart, a great deal manages to get said, entertainingly, about growing up different, about love, about the political and the personal, about what makes a family, and about the ways in which artists are and are not just like everybody else.

All this unfolds over two very long acts.  It's worth saying that I noticed how long they were (especially Act I) because my butt got numb rather than because I was bored.  I wasn't.  The dialogue was clever, the speeches and situations moved fast and neatly.   There is no actual plot, although each character has something like a psychological arc, delivered mostly in individual ballads.  The communal life of the boarding house is traced in wonderful ensemble pieces (I've lost the song-list, sadly--it wasn't printed in the program) full of clever lyrics and some very clever staging.  I was particularly impressed by the music, which sounds more modern classical than pop, shading into quotations from Britten (Ellen said--I don't know this music well enough to know) and other mid-century modernist composers without ever going full-on 12-tone (except for comic effect).  Gypsy Rose Lee's burlesque hymn to intelligent men is a total delight, as is Britten and Pear's duet on the subject of bed bugs.  The singing was assured, nuanced, and totally unmiked, which I appreciated, even though it meant I missed a few words of lyric.

OK, I have to leave now, so I can go see two (!) more plays:  Gentlemen Prefer Blonds with Ellen's Uncle Ron and Fabulation of the Re-Education of Undine in Brooklyn.  Don't know when I'll catch up--we're leaving for WisCon on Thursday.  But I'll make notes and do my best, because everything I've seen makes me want to share.