Review: ‘Grey Gardens’ at the Ahmanson Theatre

By Erin Conley, OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Onstage Blog
July 15, 2016

Los Angeles CA – “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” In Grey Gardens, the musical based on the documentary of the same name, which opened this week at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, the lines between past and present are both drawn and blurred. The audience must decide which of the characters to believe as the fascinating examination of a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter unfolds.

Grey Gardens tells the true story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (also known as “Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. “Grey Gardens” is the name of their estate in East Hampton, New York, and a 1975 documentary depicted the strange, sad life of isolation and squalor the former socialites eventually came to lead. The musical version, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, is the first ever musical to be based on a documentary. It debuted in New York in 2006 and enjoyed a run on Broadway; the current Los Angeles production is a reprise of a brief 2015 production at the Bay Street Theater.

One of the most unique narrative devices Grey Gardens employs is that the actress (Rachel York) who plays Big Edie in act one plays Little Edie in act two. Broadway legend Betty Buckley plays Big Edie in act two, while Sarah Hunt plays Little Edie in act one. Act one, which takes place in 1941, is largely speculative and fictional, depicting one pivotal day in the lives of both Edies. Little Edie brings her high-society fiance, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young), home to meet her family for the first time, and her mother’s selfish, spotlight-hogging, erratic behavior immediately drives him away, leaving a heartbroken Little Edie to flee Grey Gardens and move to New York to pursue a career in show business. Act two, which takes place 32 years later, is based on the documentary and rejoins the Beales in alarming circumstances—they are shut-ins, and their once spectacular home is flea-infested and overrun by dozens of cats. While the city constantly knocks on the door, citing them with health violations, the Beales fall deeper into a sad state of poverty and delusion, thanks to declining mental health and decades of resentment.

The two acts are drastically different in tone in a manner reminiscent of Into the Woods. While act one is much more traditional musical theatre, act two depicts a very heartbreaking situation that maintains a levity thanks to Michael Wilson’s smart directing and the brilliant performances. Perhaps accordingly, the show really comes to life in act two, which also makes use of the documentary device—movie-style scenes and images, some of which are pre-recorded and some of which are a live feed, are projected onstage, and we see a camera crew recording the action. The music is pleasant but ultimately forgettable, serving primarily as fodder for the larger than life characters to live out their fantasies.

Speaking of characters, by far the most remarkable thing about this production is the master class in acting Ms. York and Ms. Buckley present. York’s subtle vulnerability will break your heart, just before she reels you back in with charisma and wit. The choice to have the same actress play both characters at different points only emphasizes the way the mother-daughter dynamic shifts throughout the piece—in act one, Little Edie is constantly embarrassed and burdened by Big Edie’s inappropriate behavior; in act two, she becomes the burden. It is never stated what exactly is wrong with the Beales, but it’s clear they both struggle with some type of mental illness, and Little Edie once expresses her fear that had her father returned home after divorcing her mother, he would have had her committed. Meanwhile, Buckley proves she is still every bit the stage legend she once was, and had the audience in the palm of her hand during her big numbers, “The Cake I Had” and “Jerry Likes My Corn.” In act one, Ms. Hunt is also delightful, with youthful energy and a strong, clear voice.

In many ways, both Beales are unreliable narrators, and in act two they frequently plead with the audience (the documentary device enables them to essentially break the fourth wall), trying to get them to believe a specific version of events. For example, Big Edie cherishes Jerry (also played by Josh Young), the neighborhood boy who provides them with food, supplies, and occasional companionship, while Little Edie is paranoid, distrustful, and convinced he is only interested in using them. There is so much wrong with the entire situation that it’s impossible to tell which—if either—interpretation is the truth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the musical ends on a rather bleak note, but will certainly give you plenty to ponder after leaving the theater. Any flaws in the somewhat disjointed musical are easily forgiven by the tremendous performance vehicles it provides, and York and Buckley’s interpretations of these characters are not to be missed.