nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 1, 2006
I do not get Grey Gardens. If this review seems peevish, well, that's why.
Act One takes place in 1941 at the Long Island estate that gives this musical its name, the home of Edith Bouvier Beale, who was then the estranged but very wealthy wife of a Wall Street businessman and the daughter of J.V. "Major" Bouvier, rich patriarch of the clan that also included future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It's the day that Edith's daughter, Edie, is announcing her engagement to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (the older brother of future president John F. Kennedy). A big lawn party is planned; the Major is there, as are little Jackie and her sister Lee and of course strapping young Joe; his parents are expected, along with Phelan Beale, Edie's absent father.
The whole thing feels like a 1940s movie musical that never was: Edith sashays around in a poorly-designed too-bright pants suit ensemble, pausing to sing the occasional number to the accompaniment of George Gould Strong, her live-in piano player/repartee partner. Edie and Joe sing a song in the garden about how golly-gosh-grand their life together is going to be. The Major leads his granddaughters Edie, Jackie, and Lee in a plucky charmer of a tune about noblesse oblige. It's like High Society crossed with the first act of Follies, but the off-kilterness seems to have no purpose.
Meanwhile, a more serious plot plays out, albeit in a very superficial way. Edith and Edie have a tense relationship; it's clear that Edie is marrying Joe as much to get out from under her mother's thumb as anything else. Edith has a problem with ego—she needs to be the center of attention ALL THE TIME. There's talk of her ruining previous engagement parties by singing programs of arias. Eventually, some unexpected bad news (which, once we find out what is, shouldn't have been all that surprising) arrives in the form of a telegram from the missing Phelan, and Edith decides to sabotage Edie's relationship with Joe (by repeating a gossipy story that, from everything I've ever read about the Kennedys, wouldn't have shocked him one iota). Joe bails out, and the act ends with Edie escaping Grey Gardens while Edith sings.
Act Two takes place 32 years later. The estate has now become a rundown mess where Edith and Edie live together, alone, apparently driving each other crazy, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-style. In the first moments of this part of the show, Edie emerges from the house dressed in a kooky bright red ensemble of clothes that are in the wrong places (e.g., she has a skirt wrapped around her head like a turban). She talks animatedly and then launches into a song called "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" that seems to be a justification for her eccentric attire (the argument, tautologically, is that she's an eccentric). I kept wondering: who is she talking to? Then it hit me: she's talking to the camera. Grey Gardens is based on a 1975 documentary of the same title, made by the Maysles Brothers about the real Edith and Edie, filmed at the real delapidated Grey Gardens. And what's happening in Act Two—though it seems a leap of faith on the part of the show's creators to expect uninitiated audience members to understand it—is that we're seeing a faithful re-creation of moments from the documentary, live on stage. All of the scenes in Act Two, except for a couple of musical numbers that seem to reflect the inner thoughts of Edie Beale, are directly derived from the movie; all the funny stuff—such as Edie's using a pair of binoculars to read a scale, or her reading aloud from a cheesy drugstore horoscope book about her ideal man—is appropriated 100%, as far as I can tell.
To which I can only ask: WHY?
The documentary seems to be a sort of offhand celebration of a cockeyed but robust form of American individualism. But we don't get enough of who Edith and Edie have evolved into for the musical Grey Gardens to accomplish that goal; instead, with half of the show's running time devoted to that weird first act, which I have concluded is an attempt to show Edie's impression or memory of that presumably pivotal day in her life, we get a look inside a crazy middle-aged lady's head, and a pretty fuzzy and unpenetrating look at that. Too often, particularly in Christine Ebersole's crowd-pleasing, over-the-top, shrill performance (she plays Edith in Act One and Edie in Act Two; forgive me, I'm the one who doesn't get Ebersole's much-vaunted star quality), it feels like the creators of Grey Gardens are actually just making fun of Edith and Edie.
Those creators are, by the way, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, who have created a nifty pastiche score for the first half of the show but are somewhat defeated by the challenge of adequately musicalizing the documentary in the second half; and book-writer Doug Wright, whose previous credits I am my own wife and Quills remind us that this is a guy who likes to reinvent really grim and unheroic personalities in a nonjudgmental but ironic postmodern light. I'm not sure that the Beales deserve this kind of treatment or can stand up to it.
There are a couple of wonderful performances here, nonetheless: John McMartin is a delight as the Major, especially in his rousing musical number "Marry Well," and Mary Louise Wilson finds genuine pathos and intelligence in the older Edith, particularly in the songs "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn." There are also some really alarming items that the show's creators should be ashamed of: I'm thinking of a throwaway racist tune for Edith in Act One called "Hominy Grits" which is supposed to make us laugh at Edith but also (or instead) allows us to laugh at picanninies—absolutely uncalled for; and also of the entire character of George Gould Strong, who is the most one-dimensional pre-Stonewall bitter old queen stereotype I've seen in years—maybe if gay authors like Wright stopped perpetuating this idea, it might actually die its long overdue death.
As for the show as a whole, I kept waiting for something to click, to make the whole ambitious exercise seem like something more than that; to be moved or touched or to learn something about the human condition.
It never happened.