At Last, Little Edie Is A Star

By Lorraine Dusky

August 10, 2015

Rachel York singing and acting her way into our hearts at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor is nothing short of spectacular. With her rich, powerful voice she radiantly conveys the emotional highs and lows of the two related-but-distinct characters she portrays in “Grey Gardens.”

Act One, she’s the stage-grabbing mother coddling a piano-playing sycophant and, three decades later in Act Two, she’s that mother’s dependent daughter taking care of her sick, ailing parent as best she can. While Ms. York exudes razzle-dazzle glam galore as the forceful mother—Big Edie—in the first act, it’s in the second act as Little Edie that the full range of Ms. York’s expressive, nuanced range is truly stunning.

Tragedy can do that.

Big Edie? Little Edie? Real-life characters who plunged into decrepitude in their 28-room East Hampton manse when the money ran out. As their house crumbled around them, they gamely carried on with an army of stray cats, a raccoon or two, faulty plumbing, and the misfortunes of gentility who fall from grace and don’t know what to do about it.

In their case, Jackie O to the rescue, as Big Edie was her aunt, and Little Edie her first cousin. She and her sister, Lee, called in the cleaners, plumbers, carpenters and painters, and fixed the place up. After that came a successful 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the women’s grim existence—on which this production is based—and, from that, they were able to glean an income.

Thus “Grey Gardens: The Musical” is made for the Hamptons—locale, high society, the Maidstone, the Kennedys—and we humans are fascinated in watching how the mighty have fallen.

The first act set in 1941 is a long song marathon in which Ms. York as Big Edie romps around, pushy and demanding, destroying her daughter’s chance at love and marriage—here to Joe Kennedy, the eldest of the Kennedy brothers, who was killed in action in 1943. Not only does she take center stage at what should be her daughter’s star turn at her engagement party, she manages to jettison the whole arrangement. Many of the songs have extremely clever rhymes: “Fanny Hill” with “De Toqueville,” “eunuch” with “wars that were Punic,” “a girl every night,” “none with cellulite.”

While praising Ms. York to the high heavens, let us note that Sarah Hunt as Young Edie is no slouch, and fills the role with panache. Also excellent and unreservedly fey is the pianist-in-residence, Howard McGillin as George Gould Strong, accompanying and entertaining Big Edie as her marriage crumbles in another country called Manhattan. Mr. McGillin may be familiar from his record-setting run as the title lead in “Phantom of the Opera.” Here, he oozes slightly smarmy charm while playing a mean piano.

Well, not actually playing, as this production comes with its own six-piece orchestra, up in the rafters, and the real piano music emanates from there, with William Waldrop on keys. Speaking of rafters, this production makes good use of side demi-stages, or projections, that allow the characters, working within the confines of one basic set, to project themselves in other rooms, different places.

But when, Oh Lord, will Act One be over?

When the 13th song is sung.

Act Two brings us forward to 1973, when a slightly loopy Little Edie—Ms. York, transformed—is taking care of her infirm and ever loopier mother, now played by Betty Buckley, one of the great ladies of stage, so how can anything go wrong?

It doesn’t. Ms. Buckley can belt out the songs even while informing us that her character is elderly and somewhat demented. She gives us a fading meteor, poignant and sad. Big Edie is bed-ridden here, and the two women cook corn on a hot plate in the bedroom. A handyman wanders in to offer a washing machine that some neighbor is jettisoning and stays for an ear of corn. Matt Doyle is that guy, and here the role suits him better than when he is Joe Kennedy in Act One.

Big Edie and Little Edie are the apotheosis of co-dependency, and an analysis of their relationship could be a case study for Psych 101. Little Edie blames her mother for missing out on her life, making a good match and/or having a musical career in New York. She did break away for a while and lived in the Barbizon when it was a hotel for women, but returns to East Hampton and her mother minus the great singing career she longed for, minus a spouse. Now she is tied to her mother until death do them part. In a superb bit of timing, they spat like dueling cats.

Sadly, all of this is true.

When I first visited the Hamptons, the documentary had not come out yet, the ladies were still in residence at the corner of Lily Pond Lane and Apaquogue. The place had been fixed up, but it lurked ominously behind thick foliage. The film “Grey Gardens” was controversial and shocking, for its pioneering use of a hand-held camera allowed the audience to trespass into the decaying lives of the two women.

The documentary was almost entirely two women talking at each other and to the audience. Here the same format is retained, but the conversation is mostly in song.

The musical, directed by Michael Wilson, and Ms. York get the character right. She is the woman I remember from the movie. Little Edie now wears a skirt pinned together, her head is always covered, like a nun, projecting both exoticism and daffiness at the same time. Ms. York’s delivery is forthright and tragic, demanding our understanding of a life gone astray. Was it her mother’s fault or her own? There is no answer.

Think of “Grey Gardens” the play as modern opera. But it lacks the full-blown resonance of a single tragic occurrence, or omission, which changed the course of their lives. You would be left wondering, “Where’s the beef?” if not for Ms. York’s forceful stage presence and inspired performance. Instead of playing for camp—which the role easily could have been—she goes for pathos and empathy, lifting the evening into a memorable theatrical event.

Big Edie died in 1977 at age 81 in Southampton Hospital. Soon after the house was sold to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. Little Edie had a short-lived cabaret act in Manhattan, but it was considered a novelty, an offshoot of the film. People came to see the character, not for the singing. She died at age 84 in 2002 in Bal Harbour, Florida.

She had not owned a cat in five years.

Grey Gardens

Book: Doug Wright; Music: Scott Frankel; Lyrics: Michael Korie; Scenic Design: Jeff Cowie; Costumes: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting, Robert Wierzel; Sound, Jon Weston; Stage Manager, Robert Bennett; Choreographer, Hope Clarke; Dance Captain: James Harkness; Music Director: Andy Einhorn; Associate Director/Choreographer and Props: Heather Ugrina.

Remaining cast includes James Harkness as Brooks Sr. and Jr; Gracie Beardsley as Jacqueline Bouvier; Dakota Quackenbush as Lee Bouvier; and Simon Jones as J .V. “Major” Bouvier.

The musical will stage through Sunday, August 30, on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with select matinees, and Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $62.55. For more information, call (631) 725-9500, or visit