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Theater Review: Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr Theater, New York

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Grey Gardens, the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 cinema-verite documentary portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ most eccentric cousins, has now become a very unlikely source for a new Broadway musical, following a successful Off-Broadway run. Some of its scenes and its structure don’t entirely come together, but, on the whole, it is a remarkable achievement, both hilarious and touching.

The movie developed a devoted cult following in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly among downtown New York’s artsiest fashionistas. At the time the movie was made, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” as Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter are universally known, were 79 and 56. They lived in East Hampton in Grey Gardens, a 28-room house of infamous squalor: “52 cats, fleas, practically no running water,” not to mention a family of possibly rabid raccoons eating through walls and taking over the attic. To call the two Edies eccentric and their relationship dysfunctional is certainly an understatement. Little Edie’s unique fashion sense and equally unique way of speaking have to be seen and heard to be believed.

The musical imagines, in its first act, what life was like for the Edies 30 years earlier, before Grey Gardens fell into disrepair, when they had money and moved in high society circles. Then the second act basically brings the film to life on the stage. In a performance that has already drawn extravagant acclaim and a new cult of admirers, Christine Ebersole plays Big Edie in the 1941 scenes and Little Edie in the 1973 scenes. Her recreation of Little Edie’s appearance and voice is quite extraordinary. I had just watched the film on DVD a few days before seeing the play, and the effect was startling.

The first act is much more conventional, with superficial resemblances to any number of family drawing-room musicals, like parts of Meet Me in St. Louis or Mame. But the dark seeds of the Edies’ future are there, and both the film and the play’s second act enrich, and are enriched by, this backstory. We see the preparations for the engagement party of Little Edie and Joe Kennedy (John Kennedy’s brother), and little Jackie Bouvier, the future Jackie Kennedy, age 12, is there. What starts cheerfully becomes steadily gloomier, sadder, more foreboding. Scandal will end the engagement, and the wedge between mother and daughter is strengthened. Little Edie goes off to try for show business success and an independent life in New York.

But we have already glimpsed the rather creepy, manipulative bonds between Big Edie and Little Edie, and when the curtain rises on Act Two, we’re not surprised to find that Little Edie moved back home and hasn’t left since 1954. She’s trapped – by her mother’s grasp and by her own inertia. But the dialogue between the two of them, and the accompanying songs, provide about half an hour of outrageous hilarity at the beginning of the second act. Doug Wright, who wrote the script, has done an uncanny job of incorporating almost every noteworthy line from the film, even though the film was totally unscripted and the lines were caught on the fly. (Wright is also responsible for I Am My Own Wife, another true story about an amazing eccentric, and one of the best Broadway productions of recent years.)

The problem comes when the play’s creators try to give it a structure and an ending. The movie has no story as such; its progression is measured by the size of the hole in the wall the raccoons make. In the play, there are musical numbers featuring ghostly figures from the first act, and a finish that makes explicit Little Edie’s futile wish to get away. But these additions actually work against the material. Only the strength of the characters and the performers keep it going.

The songs in the first act are lovely but mostly innocuous. The second act opens with a brilliant number interspersed with a Little Edie monologue drawn from the film: “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” Deservedly, it got a huge ovation the night I saw it. It’s soon followed by Big Edie’s “The Cake I Had,” another show-stopper. But the songs in the second act which incorporate the characters from Act One are less successful. They seem rather like failed experiments.

And yet, Christine Ebersole is a wonder, and Mary Louise Wilson as Big Edie (in 1973) is also very good, if a bit more elegant and likeable than the movie’s scarier character. Allen Moyer’s scenery, William Ivey Long’s costumes, and the lighting by Peter Kaczorowski are all first-rate. The play’s creators have set themselves an almost impossible task, and they deserve a lot of credit for trying, even if the results fall short.

I found the movie fascinating, funny, and horrifying, an emotional train wreck that’s hard to stop watching. At its best, this adaptation comes close, although it’s inevitably a little slicker, a little less open-ended. See them both, if you can – there are very few movies or musicals quite like this.

Grey Gardens opens November 2 at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, New York, NY.  (800) 432-7250 or Telecharge

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