Category: Archive

Cat people

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Ebersole’s performance in the double role of “Little” Edie Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, as a younger women, is right up there with Ethel Merman’s work in “Gypsy,” Mary Martin’s achievement in “South Pacific,” and, once more digging into the theatrical past, Gertrude Lawrence’s portrayal of Anna, the Welsh teacher in the royal court of Siam in “The King and I.”
Audience reaction to “Grey Gardens” may depend, to some extent, on familiarity with the celebrated 1975 documentary of the same name, made by filmmaker brothers David and Albert Maysles.
Like the 31-year-old film, the musical, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, tells the story of a massively eccentric mother and daughter who lived in cat-ridden squalor in a decaying 28-room mansion named Grey Gardens in East Hampton on Long Island.
The detail that lifted the Beales out of the category of mere curiosities is the fact that they were cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who had, in her early teens, spent considerable time visiting Grey Gardens, along with her younger sister, Lee.
Since the generally admired Playwrights Horizons stand last March, a great amount of work has been done on the show, particularly on the desultory and somewhat tedious first act set in July, 1941, with Ebersole playing the semi-abandoned wife of a straying Wall Street trader, a woman in sporadic competition with her only daughter.
At least six musical numbers from the running order at Playwrights Horizons have been eliminated, replaced or repositioned in an effort to breath life in the venture’s first half. There is, undeniably, a certain measure of improvement, tightening and evident polishing, but, despite all the effort, Act I remains, basically, an uninvolving portrait of a dysfunctional Long Island family of privilege a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
At issue in the show’s first half is the supposed engagement of “Little” Edie to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr., about to be celebrated at an elaborate lawn party at Grey Gardens. The romantic entanglement between a youthful Edie, then just 24, and JFK’s older brother, doomed to die in World War II, may or may not be based on fact, but it powers the lengthy opening act, the point being the manner in which the girl’s mother manages to torpedo the match out of a combination of candor and casual malice.
Young Kennedy, prim, proper and already being groomed by his father for a political career, flees Grey Gardens and Edie when he discovers that he has been seduced, potentially, into a family of careening eccentrics.
In Act II, which takes place in 1973, Ebersole makes a hearty meal of the role of “Little” Edie, then 57 and ensconced with her bedridden mother in a domicile which has already become something of a thorn in he sides of their more conventional Long Island neighbors, not to mention the political powers that moderate life in the Hamptons.
“Grey Gardens” doesn’t really kick in until after the intermission, when the marginally crazed Edie strides out and delivers a patter song, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” a number worthy, or nearly so, of the Savoyard operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and fully capable of infusing a mediocre show with a genuine jolt of creative brilliance.
She is, of course, the bizarrely clad figure familiar from the Maysles film, her head covered by a tortured scarf and her undergarments sometimes worn outside her other clothing rather than inside.
Giving an equal lift to the proceedings is the advent of the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson as the elderly Edith Bouvier Beale, now cranky, infirm and feisty, but still fully capable of the combativeness and competitiveness which have played major roles in their lives from the very outset.
Wilson, who scored a few seasons ago as another eccentric, the late fashion icon Diana Vreeland ,in the off-Broadway hit, “Full Gallop,” matches the redoubtable Ebersole jibe for jibe and blow for blow, without ever quite compromising the genuine affection and interdependence which bonds the two women in the first place.
Director Michael Greif has fielded a strong supporting cast, most of whom are saddled with fragmented roles, distinctly on the sidelines of the action dominated by the terrific Ebersole and Wilson.
The unfailing John McMartin, recently so splendid in A.N. Gurney’s “Indian Blood,” probably comes off best, delivering a salty portrait of Little Edie’s golfing grandfather, J.V. “Major” Bouvier. In the second act, he does what he can with the task of impersonating Norman Vincent Peale, the popular churchman who appears to have influenced the Beale women.
Bob Stillman earns strong marks as George Gold Strong, the gay pianist, composer and accompanist more or less kept as a household pet by Edith, who liked to torture her houseguests with impromptu song recitals.
In the show’s most successful example of actorial doubling, Matt Cavenaugh turns up in Act I as the straitlaced Kennedy, and returns in the later half as Jerry, a roughly teenaged Long Island layabout, a dimwitted but harmless lout in a Newsday sweat shirt to whom the elder Beale takes an innocent liking,.
Erin Davie, new to the cast for its Broadway reincarnation, is adroit as “Little” Edie in her larval stage, a role designed mainly to suggest the character’s oncoming mental instability, a task the young actress-singer accomplishes with style.
The costumes designed by William Ivey Long are, as usual, flawless, with particular admiration going to the bits and pieces “Little” Edie wears in middle age and which Ebersole turns into purest sartorial magic, a fashion statement for the ages.
Allen Moyer’s scenic design manages to familiarize the show’s audiences with Grey Gardens first in its aristocratic wartime glory, and then in its sad decay, inhabited by two women and some 52 cats, whose presence motivates one character to refer to it as “a 29-room litter box.”
The house was condemned by the Suffolk County Board of Health in 1972. Edith Bouvier Beale died in 1977 at age 81, but “Little” Edie lived on until 2002, finally dying at 83, unknown and alone, in Bal Harbor, Florida.
The score provided for “Grey Gardens” by Frankel and Korie is sadly undistinguished, except for that Act II opening number, plus “The Girl Who Has Everything,” a character-establishing balled that has been added for the Broadway engagement, and perhaps the title song, “Entering Grey Gardens,” which turns up in Act II and suffers a bit from an overcomplicated directorial scheme.
Considering the location in which “Grey Gardens” takes place, and the nature and background of the characters who populate it, it’s a decided pity that the late Cole Porter wasn’t around to compose the score the material at its best so richly deserved.
As for the house, Grey Gardens was bought in 1979 by married journalist celebrities Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. They paid $220,000 for it.

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