Even if you’ve never seen the 1975 Maysles brothers cult documentary – or the 2009 fictionalized film – about Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Beale, it’s likely you’ve caught wind at some point of the sordid gist of their story. Edith was Jackie Kennedy’s aunt; her daughter, “little Edie,” was Jackie’s cousin, and the discovery, in the early 1970s, that this pair of American aristocrats were living in almost indescribable squalor in their East Hampton family manse caused a considerable stir. How could these wealthy, high society women have fallen so very very low?
That’s the question the original documentary posed implicitly, and it’s the question posed explicitly at the beginning of the musical Grey Gardens,which was written by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. The musical opens in 1973, establishing the elderly Edith (Beth Johnstone Bush) and her daughter Edie (Daina Michelle Griffith) as two isolated, bickering biddies with way too many cats. It then flashes back, for the remainder of the first act, to 1941, as the grand, stately home is being readied for a party celebrating Edith’s engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (Daniel Mayhak). Edie is “the girl who has everything,” her mother sings – and she does seem to have everything, except for parents who actually care about her emotional and psychological wellbeing.
The titles of the first act songs tell you everything you need to know about the toxic arch-patriarchal environment in which debs like Edie and her younger cousins Jackie and Lee Bouvier (Lucia Williams and Clara McGough) were groomed to take their place on the arms of future presidents, senators, oil tycoons, and Polish princes: “Body Beautiful Beale,” “Marry Well,” “Goin’ Places,” and “Daddy’s Girl.” Scott Frankel’s music is shot through with dissonance, a choice that lends an appropriately jangly energy to the action on stage, in which mother Edith (Griffiths) divides her time between imperiously arranging the details of the party, flirting with her boytoy accompanist George Gould Strong (Chad Elder), and sabotaging her daughter’s future happiness (young Edie is played in the first act by Kaylie Mae Wallace).
Establishing the dysfunctional relationship between Edith and Edie is the main function of the first act. As Edie makes an attempt to escape her mother’s grip at the close of act one, Edith warbles “…I will be ever true…will you?” and upstage curtains open to reveal the decrepitude of their home thirty years in the future. Act two gains momentum as it plops us smack dab into the world of the Maysles documentary – that is, into a house overfilled with junked furniture and foul garbage, including more empty cat food tins than you really care to think about (the set, by Johnmichael Bohach, is so vividly realized that you can practically smell the stench of cat piss and rotting food). Griffiths is instantly recognizable as the middle-aged “little” Edie, thanks in part to Julianne D’Errico’s iconic costuming (on opening night, her entrance garnered a wave of appreciative and knowing applause), but also largely to her nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the character, and especially of her precarious grip on reality. She captures Edie’s charm and charisma as well as her depression and despair (and the night I saw the show she also managed a masterful moment of improvisation in an attempt to get an audience member to silence a singing phone).
Director Robyne Parrish and music director Doug Levine have put together a tight production, one anchored by fine performances by the entire ensemble, but especially by Griffiths and Bush, who generate a lot of friction as they unspool the at-times bitter, and at-times weirdly loving, relationship between a narcissistic mother and daughter who can’t escape their need for each other’s suffocating attention.