By John Simon
August 27, 2015
In Sag Harbor, a charming Long Island watering place, there is the worthy little Bay Street Theater where “Grey Gardens” (2006) has been ably revived.
The musical, by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), is based on a famous documentary. It tells of an aristocratic mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter “Little” Edie Beale, living in a dilapidated mansion with innumerable cats, raccoons, etc. in squalor and filth, to the disgust of their Long Island neighbors.
They are, respectively, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Onassis, who reluctantly pays for their upkeep. The trouble began on what was to have been the engagement party for glamorous Edie and Joseph Kennedy Jr., John’s elder brother, with guests foregathered, where elegant mother Edith was to entertain with a song recital. But a telegram comes from Edith’s husband, announcing that he has absconded to Mexico with another woman, and the resulting scandal, along with Edith having told Joe about some of Edie’s provocative past behavior, puts an end to everything, as a humiliated Edie takes off for New York City for a theatrical career that never materialized.
The strict Catholic Kennedys are gone, and so is Major Bouvier, the curmudgeonly father and grandfather. Hence the two women in uneasy bohemian symbiosis, living in the shambles of a grand mansion. We see them some thirty-odd years later, with an old black servant’s son and a fascinated young hippie, Jerry, of unreliable, scattershot help. Degradation is total, but old Edith remains cheerfully domineering, and middle-aged Edie, despite surviving fantasies of a career and attempted escape, stays on as her slave.
The show has been ably directed by Michael Wilson, cleverly designed by Jeff Cowie, and sassily costumed by Ilona Somogyi, and, despite some cuts, is faithful to the successful original. Well cast, and taking place a few miles from where it really happened, it is eminently watchable.
The music is suitably and pleasantly period pastiche, the lyrics are eminently serviceable, and the performances impeccable. Elegant mother Edith in act one, and raunchily costumed daughter Edie in act two, Rachel York acts, sings and suffers exemplarily, as she is unable to leave her crotchety and demanding mother.
As by now old Edith, Betty Buckley is perfect as a jolly old tyrant hobbling with a cane or cooking corn by her bedside (which young Jerry, her adored and cosseted hippie helper, dutifully consumes), the very image of mischievous second childhood.
There is consummate support in a variety of sometimes doubled roles by Sarah Hunt, Simon Jones, Howard McGillin, Matt Doyle and James Harkness; two little girls, the future Jacqueline Onassis and Lee Radzivil, played by Gracie Beardsley and Dakota Quackenbush, are adorable.
The only problem is that the show must close at the end of August, but whatever sacrifice it may take to attend it will prove amply rewarded.