Theatre

'Grey Gardens' crafts a special house of pain

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK - "Lovely to meet you, Mr. Kennedy," says the pretty girl. "Why, thank you, Jackie," says the handsome recipient of the compliment.

A scene from the salad days of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy? Not exactly. It's Jackie as a girl meeting Joe Kennedy - on the announcement day of his engagement to "Little Edie" Beale and right before Edie's mother (and Jackie's aunt), Edith Bouvier Beale, chases off the nervous Kennedy and destroys her daughter's one chance at happiness.

If JFK and Jackie and JFK were the Hamlet and Ophelia of Camelot, Edith and Little Edie were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the celebrity American court.

Natural-born actresses denied the stage they craved, this mother-and-daughter duo were minor tabloid players in the waning, post-war years of the blue bloods of the East Hamptons. But as told in "Grey Gardens," the deeply moving and exquisitely performed new Broadway show from book writer Doug Wright and the musical team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, their fall mirrors our deepest insecurities.

This is a rare and distinguished entry in that ever-shrinking Broadway lexicon of serious musicals. With a sizzling, gut-wrenching performance from Christine Ebersole as the fraught and ill-used central character in Jeff Calhoun's production, this moving, exquisitely performed show should be the prestige Broadway attraction of the fall.

The quality and emotional oomph of this musical (first seen last spring at Playwrights Horizons and expanded for Broadway) flows from a rare ability to move and provoke an audience on matters personal and existential. The show ponders the hell that unyielding parents can bring down on their dependent children and grandchildren - regardless of the resources at their disposal. It notes that happiness - in love, in life - may be a one-shot deal that vanishes forever. It reminds the rich and powerful - who know what happened to Brooke Astor - that they might end their lives in depressing circumstances. And most important of all, it shrewdly and even-handedly explores the way mother and daughter are linked for life, even if it's to their detriment.

Edith and Little Edie lived in a dilapidated Long Island mansion called "Grey Gardens," which was also the title of an cultish 1975 movie documentary about their lives. David and Albert Maysles' documentary film is set entirely at the eponymous home, where the eccentric, fallen Beales feed their cats, kvetch at each other and perform, wistfully, for a camera. The Broadway show, though, fills in (taking certain liberties) the 1940s back story detailing how these women reached such a pretty pass.

Ebersole, whose work is dark and electrifying but also funny, plays the mother in Act One (the blooming Erin Davie plays Little Edie when she still had a chance) and the daughter in Act Two the second (whereupon an unstinting Mary Louise Wilson takes over as the old lady). It's a dazzling tour-de-force.

Frankel and Korie have penned a collection of simple but lovely songs in American songbook style, replete with witty lyrics. "The parents of the groom are just a wee bit formal," sings Little Edie. "Help them think that we are normal."

She fails in that, of course. For sure, "Grey Gardens" has a camp quality - what with its celebrity characters and Mama Rose-like mother. And the early sections of the second act play too much to those who've memorized the film, which is a cheaper thrill.

Thankfully, it's a minor detour. Here, the grown-up Little Edie never gets to run away to the vaudeville or strip in self-defense. She just wraps herself up, ever more tightly.

___

GREY GARDENS

Where: Walter Kerr Theater, 219 W. 48th St., New York.

Tickets: 212-239-6200.

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