‘Grey Gardens’ is Spectacularly Surreal, but Tragically True

By Imaan Jalali
LA Excites
July 17, 2016

“Grey Gardens,” the Musical – penned by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie – is the the true-to-life portrait of a mother-daughter combo and the melodrama that surrounded them. Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Beale were distinguished by virtue of their relation to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and lived for what may have been most of their lives inside the Grey Gardens Estate in East Hampton, NY.

Transformation via time is a motif throughout the show, which mostly plays off the events that transpired in the 1975-released documentary, Grey Gardens, directed/edited by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke. The current incarnation of “Grey Gardens” – a continuation of the initial adaptation to the stage in 2006, which won accolades with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson as the leads – will play until August 14th at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Wonderfully directed by Michael Wilson, this version of the musical launched for a three-week period in August 2015 at the Bay Street Theater in New York, and is headlined by Broadway legend Betty Buckley as Edith and stage superstar Rachel York as Edie. It is a tale of two sides of the same coin, though one burnished and the other frayed.

Act I focuses on the traditional American prestige of living in luxury in 1941. Although it is rife with many fictional accoutrements to the plot, including the engagement between Edie and Joseph Kennedy Jr., it highlights the dilapidation that is to come. York is magnificently regal as the sweet but domineering mother who insists on singing nine songs at her daughter Edie’s engagement party. Sarah Hunt, a recent Juilliard Graduate, is phenomenal as the endearing girl who tries so commendably to break free from her mother’s control, to live happily with the love of her life (Joe Kennedy, played by Josh Young), only to feel the burden of maternal guilt weighing on her freedom.

Edie’s relationship to her mother Edith is a uniquely dependent one. In Act One, there is seemingly a reversal of roles, as young Edie is the one often doling out motherly advice to Edith, who is misguided by her ego. Their love is underlined by a resentment that ultimately isn’t potent enough to disrupt their unbreakable bond. This is beautifully characterized in the song “Two Peas in a Pod,” when the wisdom and burgeoning adulthood of Edie is engulfed by her mother’s overpowering charm.

The first act is also memorable for Bryan Batt’s portrayal of George Gould Strong, Edith’s pianist and kept man, whose aplomb dapperness is anchored by one crowd-pleasing one-liner after another. Like Edith, his smugness is perfectly balanced by his laissez-faire and disarming nature until, unlike Edith (or Edie for that matter), he asserts his own independent worth.

Another indelible character in Act I is J.V. “Major” Bouvier, who Simon Jones brings a whimsical warmth to. “Major” Bouvier means well as the patriarch of the Bouvier family, providing a sage voice to the young women in his family to “Marry Well” and lead their lives with an enlightened prudence.

Certainly, when Act II begins in the year 1973, we find that Edith and Edie have dragged each other down into the pit of squalor that was once the grandiose Grey Gardens mansion, living amid a broken-down staircase, strewn objects, and stray animals. Their enmeshment, filmed by documentarians (who are supposed to be David and Albert Maysles), is projected on the scenery in up-close-and-personal fashion. Mother and daughter have isolated themselves from the rest of the world, accountable to only each other in what doesn’t even pass the barest standard of living. Time has only solidified how much they need each other, if only to converse and preserve their withered sanity.

Buckley is fantastically charismatic as Edith, offering insight into why Edie has stayed around for the last 32 years. Truthfully, Edith, at least on the surface, is immensely likable, funny, and even justified at times. When Buckley, as Edith, fires back on her daughter’s lamentations for missing out, arguing she never stood in her daughter’s path toward happiness, we believe her because, yes, there were never any physical obstructions holding Edie back from fulfilling her own personal journey. Yet, the reason has always been an iron-cast psychological prison that had been slowly, but poisonously, induced by the needy Edith throughout the years.

Consequently, Edie is resigned to living out her life in a fantasy-fashioned world of her own imaginings, like being a counter-culture rebel or parading around in the 4th of July-inspired “The House We Live In.” And due to being secluded for so long, the scope of passing time has eluded the connection between her body and mind, the latter of which fools herself into thinking Jerry, a neighborhood sanitation worker (played spot-on by the versatile Young), wants her for her body – a delusion quickly struck down by Edith, who comically cries out, “Jerry doesn’t want to have sex with you!”

However, as pleasing and personable as Edith is, she is willingly bound by the allure of her own victimhood, as in when she amusingly implores, “Jerry Likes My Corn.” And most unfortunately, Edith’s indigence has been mirrored by her daughter Edie insofar that when she finally tries to unshackle herself from her mother’s thrall, she is lured by the mere request to have a cup of soup together. We’re sad for Edie’s predicament, but also understand we’d probably do the same in that situation.

“Grey Gardens” deserves the highest recommendation for outstandingly layered performances by Betty Buckley, and especially Rachel York, who handles the complex personae of both Edith and Edie with virtuoso proficiency.