Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Not so Black and White, Anymore

"Grey Gardens" at the Walter Kerr Theatre, October 24, 2006

After a four-month, sold out run off Broadway at Playwright's Horizon, "Grey Gardens" has transferred to Broadway, giving Christine Ebersole the exposure she deserves in her tour-de-force performance as both Edith Bouvier Beales, the mother and daughter.

Based on and extrapolating from the documentary of the same name by David and Albert Maysles in the early 1970's, Doug Wright has taken the tale of Edith and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who were found living in squalor, on their family estate - Grey Gardens in Easthampton, NY.

Act I finds Edith preparing to perform at the engagement party of daughter Little Edie to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Edith's father, the Major is along to balance the presence of little cousins, Lee and Jackie Bouvier. Also present is the resident fop, George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist, bon vivante, and ever so fey confidante. By the end of the act, the Beale women have been dealt major blows. Mr. Beale has wired to say that not only is he not attending the engagement party, but that he is divorcing Edith in Mexico. Edith's response is to sabotage the engagement, driving Mr. Kennedy out of Little Edie's life. The act ends as Little Edie packs a suitcase and flees the house as Edith greets the party guests with one of the songs she has prepared to perform.

Act II picks up in 1972, the period during which the documentary was filmed. Little Edie, now 56, lives with Edith in the house which is overrun with cats, raccoons and garbage. A neighbor boy, Jerry, has taken an interest in the two and shows up regularly to help out, and enjoy the fun of watching these two eccentric and bizarre women.

Mr. Wright has used artistic license to create the events in Act I. It is known that efforts to join the Bouviers and the Kennedys had been underway long before Jackie and Jack got together. Both families saw the advantages that would be afforded to both sides, so a proposed union between Little Edie and Joseph, Jr. might have been considered.

To turn this story into a musical seems the bigger challenge, in my view. The Maysles' documentary presents a pitiful scenario of two women on and near the end of a downward spiral, caught between pride and poverty on the edge of insanity. Scott Frankel has done an masterful job of capturing the diverse moods and feelings in the two acts. I had the fortune to crash the cast talk-back after the performance and asked Mr. Frankel about the first act score. As I watched the show, the overall sense I got was a Kern/Porter/Gershwin/Rodgers feeling, which would suit Edith's musical tastes. Edith was famous (infamous?) for performing extensively at her own high-society parties, and did make several records in the 30's and 40's. I asked Mr. Frankel if he had a single composer of the era in mind. He confirmed the Porter/Gershwin/Kern flavor was his intent. Michael Korie's lyrics match the styles and integrate song into story beautifully.

The opening number "The Girl Who Has Everything" evokes the Kern/Lehar era as it reveals Edith in rehearsal for the engagement party. A quick segue way into "The Five Fifteen" gives just the right level of exposition and sets the excitement for the evening's party.

Joe appears after Edith and Little Edie have had their first go-round about the musical plans for the party in "Mother Darling." They escape to the terrace where he shares his family's ambitions, "Going Places."

The Major enters next and takes young Lee and Jackie outdoors for a little golf lesson and grandfatherly advice, "Marry Well." It is here that his influence becomes apparent as a driving force among these Bouvier women.

As Little Edie in Act 1, Erin Davie softens the role originated by Sara Guettelfinger, and instills sympathy with her fragile performance. Her Edie sees spinsterhood looming in her future and is desparate to avoid it, as well as escape from the passive/aggressive destructive treatment she gets from her mother. Her "Mother Darling" is much more of a plea than a demand for Edith to allow the party to occur naturally, without Edith's usual "impromptu" vocal performance that has become standard fare at a Grey Gardens event. She has her own ambitions for a performing career, sharing it with Joe during their duet "Going Places." Unfortunately, Joe's (or the Kennedys') plans do not include a working wife, particularly working in show business.

Matt Cavenaugh has grown nicely in his role as Joe Kennedy, Jr. He has managed to nail down the flat and nasal Massachussetts drawl so strongly identified with that clan. His role has been modified, but to the advantage of the story. Off-Broadway, Joe was used more as a stock juvenile role. Now his character has some depth and helps bring the story along. In Act II, Mr. Cavenaugh plays Jerry, the neighbor boy who stops by to lend a hand. He transitions between roles nicely.

John McMartin as Major Bouvier also benefits from the changes to Act I. His Major may have retired to enjoy his family and free time, but he still wields a firm hand with daughter Edith. When Little Edie finds her opportunity to let him know that Edith plans to sing at the party, he puts his foot down and as he speaks to Edith, we get a taste of how Mr. Beale speaks to Little Edie. His number "Marry Well" sung to little Jackie and Lee foreshadows the profitable unions those two will achieve as adults. When Little Edie joins the number late, you already get the sense that for all her efforts, she will not have the same fortune.

As George Gould Strong, Bob Stillman fulfills the role of Edith's accompanist, best friend and confidante. His Gould is another stock character, the dandy, but he keeps from suffering the stereotype. He knows his position in the household is tenuous and since he truly cares about Edith, he is quick to offer to leave Grey Gardens to return to NYC and make his own way. She won't hear of it.

It is Christine Ebersole who is the heart and soul of this production. As Edith, she coos, cajoles, threatens, berates and pleads her way through the party preparations. She demonstrates in "The Five Fifteen" that she has entertained enough to let the minor details of flowers, food and chairs take care of themselves while she rehearses her songs. Her dysfunctional relationship with Little Edie appears early in their duet, "Mother Darling." It is when Mr. Beale's telegram arrives for Little Edie that she sees just how desperate her situation is. She betrays Little Edie to Joe with the tale of an embarrassing swimsuit accident which Little Edie suffered through, sabotaging the engagement. Knowing Little Edie will have no other option but to stay, Edith's final song of the act, "Will You?" becomes a plea for forgiveness.

Mary Louise Wilson reappears in Act II as Edith, after the very brief Prologue that began the show. You quickly sense the how the years have worn on her. Her first song “The Cake I Had” is both proud and rueful, as she explains why she did some of the things she did which have landed her in her present state. Her Edith is still just as competitive with Little Edie as ever. When they talk about Jerry, she is quick to squelch Little Edie’s misplaced ideas that he is sexually interested in the younger Beale woman. While her concept may be right, it is only partially so. She sings “Jerry Likes My Corn” and you think she feels Jerry is more interested in her.

With all the style and confidence displayed in Act I, Ms. Ebersole's Little Edie in Act II has become a shell of what she might have been. Unconfident, no self-esteem and bordering on lunacy, Little Edie can only focus on things she knows - working with what few clothes she has left, trying to carry any sense of style her poverty will afford. The stress of the intervening years has made her bald and she has taken to wearing cardigan sweaters on her head, buttoned under her chin and tied with a brooch to serve as "hair." The verge of paranoia hangs over her Edie, but one can still see the trapped young woman desperate to escape this twisted jail her life has become. Opening Act II with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” is the first of many quotes from the documentary that are expanded upon in this act. When Edie works up the courage to actually leave Grey Gardens, she sings longingly of what she’s missed in “Around the World.” Suitcase in hand at the edge of the property, it is Edith’s call to Edie that she is compelled to answer, and seals her own fate to remain there. A reprise of “Will You?” is now again a plea for forgiveness, but from each woman to the other.

Director Michael Grief has refined his efforts with the streamlining of both acts. Three new songs were added to Act I, with a new reprise in Act II. The changes to both book and score have cleared up both motivations and reactions to the pivotal events instigated by Mr. Beale's telegram. Having now seen the original documentary between these two productions, He has really captured not only the reality of the events in Act II, but also has managed to look into the minds of the two women as well. He has lifted events from the documentary and translated them to the stage with grace and truth. When Little Edie shows Jerry her marching song, the soldiers she sees in her mind appear and dance along with her.

Sets by Allen Moyer are unchanged from the earlier production, but sitting in the mezzanine for this show, I now understood the intentions behind the design. The main stage area slides forward and back to make room for various changes downstage, such as a lovers’ bench for Joe and Little Edie, or the terrace steps for Edith’s number which closes Act I. During Act II, as Little Edie stands frozen with her suitcase contemplating her departure, she is below a gap in the stage that separates her from the house. As Edith calls to her, her voice closes the gap and Edie crosses back to her old life.

I saw the Playwright's production last spring and enjoyed it, but felt it was more an evening of two one-act musicals, only connected by common character names.

When I learned that the show was going to transfer, I was hopeful that the creative team would have (and take) the opportunity to make the changes necessary to give the audience a more cohesive evening at the theatre.

I'm so happy they have - and beautifully so!

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