There are cult movies and there are cult movies. While a finite but passionate following is what defines the category, admirers of David and Albert Maysles’ haunting 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” tend toward worship. Exploring the backstory behind its portrait of “Little” Edie Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale — cousin and aunt, respectively, of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, living in eccentric isolation in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion — this weird and wonderful musical should attract a no less ardent core. Familiarity with the film aids immeasurably in full appreciation, but that in no way diminishes the achievement of this boldly imaginative show.
Book author Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have taken risks at every step of this unconventional, unapologetically esoteric endeavor. Like “Sunday in the Park With George” (also hatched at Playwrights Horizons), this is a musical with two distinct parts set in different time frames. While each part is cleverly designed to reflect the style of its period, many no doubt will find the twin personae irreconcilable.
Act one takes place in 1941, when Edith and her socialite daughter Edie were among “la creme de Hyannis”; act two is a faithful distillation of the Maysles brothers’ film, set in 1973 after mother and daughter’s reclusion.
By reimagining the Beales at their peak in the context of a frothy musical confection bubbling with drawing room-comedy repartee, the creatives have cleverly woven a portrait of the women these pariahs once were, laced with illuminating indicators of what prompted their fall. Starting with the 1973 prologue, foreshadowing of the bleak direction in which their lives are headed gently amplifies the poignancy of the Beales’ fate.
The noble precursor of an ignoble breed of voyeuristic reality TV, the Maysles’ “direct cinema” classic has been unjustly accused of exploiting its subjects by sensationalizing their story as the morbid Bizarro World version of the Kennedys’ Camelot. But while the train wreck fascination of the Beale women is undeniable, the film is remarkable more for its intimacy, its refusal to judge, for the dignity and even wisdom it acknowledges in its loopy subjects, not to mention their maverick flamboyance.
That sensitivity is mirrored in Wright’s approach, bringing a probing psychological curiosity not unlike that he brought to “I Am My Own Wife,” albeit using more observational than analytical means here. Even when it flirts with darkly funny Robert Aldrich, Blanche-and-Baby-Jane grotesquerie — as it does willingly, and often — the show never abandons its melancholy awareness of the brutality of life, of the accumulated sadness and disappointment that can push people over the edge. It also underlines how this brand of crazy often is the domain of the very rich and privileged.
Keeping the material grounded even through the characters’ most off-kilter tangents are two superbly accomplished performers.
As “Big” Edie, who spends much of act two in bed, screaming for attention or drifting into delusional reveries about the days when her singing voice was in perfect form (“Each note a clarion … pure as Venetian glass!”), Mary Louise Wilson strikes a disarming balance of benign old dear, theatrical grande dame and wicked, controlling shrew. Watch the mischief light up her eyes when she needles “Little” Edie about her lost looks, expanding waistline or the men she allowed to get away.
Even when mother and daughter are squawking at each other with their daily volley of regrets and recriminations, Wilson’s Edith has an oddly serene stillness about her, rarely shared by “Little” Edie. Playing the spotlight-seeking mother in the show’s first half, and the daughter who still dreams of escaping Grey Gardens to sophisticated Manhattan in the second, the incandescent Christine Ebersole pours herself into two equally tricky roles.
Ebersole clearly has studied the film religiously until she has down pat Edie’s stance, her walk, the wistful intelligence behind the childlike gaze, along with her Long Island drawl, bearing only the faintest trace of its former finishing-school polish. But her mesmerizing turn surpasses imitation, opening a sorrowful window onto this self-described “staunch” character’s torn psyche.
In the musical’s exquisite closing song, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” as “Little” Edie stands poised to leave Grey Gardens, Ebersole delivers sublime theatrical magic. She makes the line “Coming, Mother Darling!” the most heartbreaking words ever spoken.
Playing “Little” Edie in her prime (known then as “Body Beautiful” Beale), the leggy Sara Gettelfinger is less ideally cast, her acting and vocals tending at times toward shrillness. And as her fiance, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., Matt Cavenaugh’s creamy voice has a persuasive charm, but he could project more charisma as the knight proffering a short-lived promise of rescue.
Gettelfinger does convey the mixed emotions of a loving daughter who resents having to compete with her mother. Her dreams of independence and success are illustrated in “Tomorrow’s Woman,” amusingly underscored by backup from preteen cousins Jackie (Sarah Hyland) and Lee (Audrey Twitchell), who are destined for the social stratosphere Edie would be denied.
The first act unfolds on the day of Edie’s planned engagement party to Joe in a pristine living room, which is deftly transformed by set designer Allen Moyer in act two into a splintered shambles of peeling paint, sagging stairs and moldy, flea-ridden furniture. Design elements all are effective, including William Ivey Long’s witty costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’s astute lighting (clean and bright in act one, moody and murky in act two) and Wendall K. Harrington’s projections, incorporating thematically related images as well as specific footage (cats, raccoons, etc.) directly recalling the Maysles’ film.
But it’s less the design transition than the deft calibration of tone orchestrated by the writers and by director Michael Greif that ushers in the 360-degree shift in the characters’ world. The old-fashioned gaiety of act one allows quiet but increasingly felt suggestions of a creeping malignant force, and characters presented as affable types reveal darker colors.
Prone to attention-grabbing theatrics, Ebersole’s Edith shows her selfish, manipulative nature, both in her monopolizing party-planning and in the casual bombs she drops to Joe about Edie’s past exploits. Likewise Edith’s conservative father, “Major” Bouvier (John McMartin), at first seems a harmless old coot, until he voices his disapproval of his bohemian daughter and her gay accompanist (a droll Bob Stillman) in cruelly damning terms.
Korie’s lyrics, with their tongue-in-cheek rhymes, playfully echo Cole Porter in act one. But it’s the second act numbers that pluck key lines or scenes from the movie, spinning simple ideas into textually and emotionally complex songs that underline the loving/fighting interdependence of the two women.
In “Jerry Likes My Corn,” Edith preparing corn on her bedside hotplate for her unlikely 17-year-old friend (Cavenaugh) becomes a touching display of maternal warmth, an ode to the vicarious frisson of youth and a sly dig at Edie. In “Around the World,” Edie’s tour of her memorabilia is both personal remembrance and bitter acknowledgment of her own existence being annexed by her mother’s. And in “Entering Grey Gardens,” the characters from act one return as ghosts, meowing like the stray cats that populate the Beales’ now marginalized world.
Bizarrely, in Jeff Calhoun’s busy musical staging, it works.
For the initiated, the re-creation in song of two indelible movie moments will be especially cherished. Edie’s flag dance, hilariously executed by Ebersole, becomes a delirious military drill in “The House We Live In,” while her iconic mix-and-match sartorial style is outlined in act-two opener “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” perhaps the most amusing song about fashion since Kay Thompson urged the style-conscious to “Think Pink” in “Funny Face.”