Such glorious decay: The musical ‘Grey Gardens’ at the Ahmanson

By Charles McNulty, Theater Critic
Los Angeles Times
July 15, 2016

Summertime is the perfect time for a visit to the Hamptons, though you’ll have to make allowances for the flea-bitten accommodations of our eccentric hosts, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little” Edie Beale, the once-grand relations of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy who have fallen on hard times.

“Grey Gardens,” the musical based on the documentary film of the same title (one of the Maysles brothers’ most fascinating cinematic works), gets its name from the East Hampton estate that is sheltering this genteelly bedraggled mother and daughter along with their menagerie of stray cats and a family of raccoons boring holes in the attic.

With a book by Doug Wright (author of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “I Am My Own Wife”) and a score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), the show, the closest Broadway gets to a cult musical, is making its belated Los Angeles debut. This new production, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre under the direction of Michael Wilson, stars Rachel York and Betty Buckley, a duo who has the mouths of musical aficionados watering all across the nation.

The original 2006 Playwrights Horizons production of “Grey Gardens,” which moved to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre later that year, was notable for the dueling star turns of Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both of whom were honored with Tony Awards (Ebersole for lead actress, Wilson for featured).

The passing of a decade hasn’t dimmed my memory of their virtuosic outlandishness, but I was eager to see what actresses as resourceful as York and Buckley could do with these stranger-than-fiction characters.

I was equally curious about whether a new production (this one inspired from the staging Wilson did at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater last summer with York and Buckley) could ameliorate some of the musical’s flaws that prevented me from loving the show as much as I wanted.

The musical’s most prominent shortcomings are in the overstretched first act that flashes back to the glory days of the Beale household, when the plumbing was still functional, the raccoons had yet to invade and the fashion wasn’t just a few rags safety-pinned together. This glamorous first half, set in 1941, is meant to historically contextualize the chaotic, filthy scene that takes place in 1973, but there’s something artificial about this explanatory setup.

The verdict on Wilson’s production is mixed. But this is a revival that no musical lover will want to miss — balm for a summer in which real-life tragedy and political melodrama have outstripped the offerings of our movie theaters and underemployed stages.

The first act still drags, with far too many unmemorable pastiche numbers trying to duplicate Cole Porter’s champagne fizz. The breezy wit of Wright’s book turns arch in places, the ambience of Wilson’s staging can seem like a New Yorker cartoon from the archives and the dialogue swirling around Edith (played in the first act by York) and young “Little” Eddie (Sarah Hunt) is a bit too psychologically knowing.

But York and Buckley are divine in the second act. York hews closely to the middle-aged “Little Edie” of the documentary (she pulls off the switch in roles with élan) while imbuing every moment with musical effervescence. Buckley (who appears in a brief prologue but is missing from the first act) sketches with impressionistic strokes the elderly Edith, whose strength has diminished but whose will remains indomitable.

The show’s second half is adapted directly from the film, but it takes on a theatrical life of its own. The aesthetic is an amalgam of the Maysles brothers, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett and Charles Addams, but the inimitable style of the Beale women is the creators’ guiding star.

York, a trouper of seemingly effortless musical theater skill who never lets her showmanship eclipse her heart, gets a number (“The Revolutionary Costume for Today”) at the top of Act II that allows her to explain the nutty getup Edie has defiantly adopted. Dressed like a sea creature invited to stroll down a Paris runway (Ilona Somogyi designed the show’s wide range of costumes), she is, in fact, a casualty of the aristocracy in search of a platoon.

The ludicrousness of her garb, the exaggerated Brahmin accent that makes her sound like a Cape Cod castaway and the farcical military readiness born out of the frustration of not having been able to separate herself from her needy, manipulative mother mark Edie as a comic grotesque. But York never loses sight of the character’s emotional pain. When she sings “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” a somber ballad for lives lived permanently out of sync, she turns comedy into tragedy before settling finally on tragicomedy, the best bargain Edie or her mother (who joins her in the number) can make at this stage of the game.

Buckley suffuses her two most memorable songs, “The Cake I Had” and “Jerry Likes My Corn,” with a moonlit melancholy that mingles beautifully with Edith’s oddball humor. A Broadway legend whose immortality was earned long ago through her rendition of “Memory” from “Cats,” Buckley should never be underestimated as a dramatic actress.

As a kid watching her on the TV show “Eight Is Enough,” I remember being taken by her unassuming naturalness. On a guest spot in the HBO comedy series “Getting On,” she was startlingly convincing as an alcoholic professor hell-bent on drinking. Here, she shows her veteran chops by re-creating Edith in her own interpretive image. This isn’t a secondhand copy, but an original creation, at once anguished and abrasive, helplessly dependent and determinedly free.

Hunt is appealing as young Edie, though I wish more of the older woman were evident in her younger self. At this point they seem like individuals separated not so much by repeated disappointments as by different parents (or perhaps authors).

The supporting cast is spotty. As Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., young Edie’s ambitious beau who expects his future wife to be demure and scandal-free, Josh Young is dashing but a little vague. As Jerry, the young man who routinely comes around to fish the Beales out of their squalor in the second act, Young doesn’t tickle us with his character’s dazed geniality as much as he might.

The rest of the actors, including Simon Jones as the thundering Bouvier patriarch known as the Major, are vivid in an exaggerated fashion. Bryan Batt, who portrays Gould, Edith’s live-in accompanist and gay surrogate significant other, seems to be playing the comic idea of the character — all cocktail-infused repartee and little soul.

The set design by Jeff Cowie is spectacular in both its grandeur and its decay, but for the life of me I can’t understand why the stage had a series of open traps threatening to swallow the actors into the orchestra pit. (Did the mansion have to be so sprawling that it encroached on the space normally reserved for the musicians?) I spent much of the second act worried that either Buckley or York was going plunge into the lap of an unsuspecting cellist.

It’s not too soon to contemplate a Broadway revival of “Grey Gardens,” and this production has certainly found the right leads. But the show needs some serious first-act pruning. Most troubled musicals collapse after the first half. This one gloriously redeems itself after intermission.