As “Little” Edie Beale observes in “Grey Gardens,” “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” When this emotionally trenchant musical premiered to wide praise Off Broadway last season, one criticism was that past and present were too separate. While the show’s creative team has made extensive changes in the move to Broadway, its most illuminating work has been to provide deepened context for this spellbinding account of fallen American royalty, connecting the dots in the subjects’ slippage from high society to its forlorn fringes.
The show’s most buzzed-about aspect has been star Christine Ebersole in a staggering dual-role performance sure to become a new benchmark for musical-theater excellence. Scaling heights of droll hilarity only to plumb searing emotional depths, capturing Edie’s physical mannerisms and Long Island drawl with uncanny exactitude and finding poignant universality in the most bizarre of eccentrics, this miraculous turn deserves every superlative thrown its way.
But in Michael Greif’s fine production, “Grey Gardens” is much more than a tour-de-force performance.
Broadway has been flooded with screen-to-stage adaptations in recent years, with more to come this season. While most shows take a primarily illustrative approach as they translate well-known characters and situations from one medium to the next, Doug Wright’s work adapting David and Albert Maysles’ cult 1975 documentary is far more probing and interpretive — even more so now than when the show played its sellout extended run at Playwrights Horizons last spring.
In less adventurous hands, “Grey Gardens” might merely have been a quirky musical about crazy cat ladies — a singing, dancing slice of Robert Aldrich-style modern gothic. But Wright and his collaborators Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have taken their cue from the Maysles brothers in portraying their multifaceted subjects with depth and dignity. Their show is a haunting account of lives derailed, a textured depiction of the warring, often simultaneous desires to wound and heal that characterize mother-daughter relationships, and a witty celebration of two defiantly maverick personalities.
Its subjects are Edie and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale –respectively cousin and aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis –whose reclusion in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion surrounded by an overgrown privet jungle and crawling with cats, raccoons and fleas was chronicled in the cinema verite classic.
Faithfully staging key scenes laced with generous swathes of the Beales’ more quotable dialogue, the show brings the fascinating Beckettian torpor of the film to life in act two and in a now-expanded prologue (both set in 1973), while exploring the root of the women’s self-imposed exile and Edie’s functioning madness in a first act that traces a single day in 1941.
That day is the occasion of a party celebrating the engagement of Edie (Erin Davie) to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh). As Edie’s cousins Jackie (Sarah Hyland) and Lee (Kelsey Fowler) look on, her plans unravel, transforming her from a woman possibly headed for the White House alongside a then-rising political star to a perpetual teenager, locked in the shadow of her overbearing mother, Edith (Ebersole).
Wright has streamlined the action here to focus more tightly on the disintegration of Edie’s hopes and dreams. Broadway newcomer Davie takes over from Sara Gettelfinger, who originated the role, and her lovely, fragile performance enhances the foreshadowing by hinting quietly at the unhinged woman Edie is to become. Cavenaugh now more clearly etches the conflict between Joe’s romantic involvement, his political ambitions and social conservatism, while John McMartin has effectively heightened the severity of Edith’s father, “Major” Bouvier, whose cruel dressing down of his bohemian daughter precipitates the encroaching disaster.
What the first act does exceptionally well now is sketch in the subtly stifling conditions against which these women rebelled.
As Allen Moyer’s inventive set morphs from sleek elegance to splintery squalor in act two, Ebersole steps into the role of 56-year-old Edie and the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson takes over as the aged Edith. As mother and daughter act out the frictions of a parent both competitive and protective and a child struggling to be her own person, the bickering provides an entertaining forestory for the underlying, steadily amplified tragedy of Edie’s psychological and emotional entrapment.
While that aspect is what most audiences will take away from the show, Wright’s achievement in turning the women’s status as social pariahs into a weird kind of triumph should be recognized. “There’s a lot to be said for living alone,” observes Edith. “You get to be a real individual.”
Ebersole and Wilson are marvelous at nailing the originality, authenticity and independence of these pre-feminist women. “Staunch women, we just don’t weaken,” sings Edie in the uproarious “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” establishing her both as unconventional style maven and political free-thinker (“The full-length velvet glove hides the fist”).
Of the new songs added for Broadway, best is McMartin’s “Marry Well,” which conveys the pressures of social conditioning far better than the now-ditched “Being Bouvier” and “Tomorrow’s Women.” New opener “The Girl Who Has Everything” also functions well, poignantly drawing the pinnacle from which Edie will tumble.
However, the high points remain unchallenged: Ebersole’s “Revolutionary Costume” and beautiful act-one closer “Will You?”; Wilson’s “Jerry Likes My Corn,” a seemingly whimsical song that spins the most unlikely snatch of dialogue into a complex piece of character- and conflict-building; Ebersole’s schizoid “Around the World,” which lurches grippingly between bitter accusation and the sad imprisonment of memory; and her heartbreaking closing number, “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” Performed on the first press night by Ebersole with tears streaming down her face, that song now segues into a superbly reworked final scene of piercing melancholy.
In a Broadway arena that can be unaccommodating for “serious” musicals, “Grey Gardens” is as boldly odd, original and beguiling as its subjects.