In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde wrote, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.” The stage musical Grey Gardens emphasizes the tragic transformation of “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale by casting the same actress as both Little Edie and her mother at high and low ebbs of their family fortunes. Both women share a love of music, but in Grey Gardens, the convention of breaking into song at times emphasizes their tenuous grasps on reality.
Big Edie and Little Edie are iconic women — in an eccentric, cautionary fashion — as the subjects of Albert and David Maysles’ documentary Grey Gardens, which has drawn an enormous cult following since its release in 1975. The Edies were the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, but in the early 1970s, they lived in squalor and self-delusion at the once-proud family estate, Grey Gardens. They could’ve been characters from a Tennessee Williams play, and added scandal and a hint of madness to the Kennedy family mystique.
The documentary's popularity inspired an HBO docudrama starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as well as a musical version, with the book written by Doug Wright, Pulitzer-winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife. Actor’s Express’ production of the Grey Gardens musical offers a funny, horrifying portrait of the Edies' fraught relationship, but hits a few bumps when it tries to bridge the show’s two time periods.
Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie craft the first act as a loving pastiche of the kind of musical and comedy forms that presaged World War II. In July 1941, Grey Gardens serves as a social center in East Hampton, Long Island, and home to plenty of quipping, bumptious personalities right out of a Noël Coward play. “We didn’t have a black sheep of our own, so we had to import one,” one of the Beales remarks of George Gould Strong (pianist Michael Monroe), Big Edie’s tippling live-in piano player.
The play marks the day Little Edie (Sarah Turner) announces her engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. (Justin McGough), older brother of Jack and the first standard-bearer of his family’s political ambitions. Joe and Edie’s jitterbug “Goin’ Places” maps out the road to the White House and serves as the first act’s breeziest number. Big Edie’s plans to sing a nine-song repertoire at the party indicate only one of the family fault lines that makes Little Edie eager to marry and escape Grey Gardens.
In the first act, the supporting players seem to lack confidence in the kind of pace and snap the initially effervescent material calls for. Wade Benson, however, as Big Edie’s father J.V. "Major" Bouvier, gives “Marry Well” an English music hall panache along the lines of Henry Doolittle’s songs in My Fair Lady. Jill Hames makes Big Edie a larger than life figure prone to warbling in old-fashioned operatic style, or singing politically incorrect tunes such as “Hominy Grits.” She comes across as a suffocating Auntie Mame type, but Hames proves so innately likable she softens Big Edies’ hard edges and doesn’t seem to deserve the contempt of her daughter and father.
Even if you’re a virgin to Grey Gardens in its different forms (as I was before Actor’s Express’ opening night), you can detect the subtle foreshadowing that anticipates the decline in Act Two. With a sweet singing voice, Turner conveys young Little Edie’s desperation and comes across as a lovely, head-turning debutante. Her performance contains virtually no shared traits with Hames’ treatment of Little Edie at middle age, however, such as Hames’ thick accent worthy of Jean Hagen’s New York patois in Singin’ in the Rain. The transformation is so bizarre, they’re like two completely different people, but the shock value seems only partly intentional.
Act Two leaps forward to 1973 and becomes the tale of two charmingly deranged ladies. Hames plays Little Edie, while Kathleen McManus takes over as now doddering Big Edie. The ghostly song “Entering Grey Gardens” indicates the house’s filth: “The crumbling walls, the broken clocks/It’s like a 28-room litter box.” Big Edie’s teenage friend Jerry (Justin McGough) even wears flea collars on his pants to keep off the vermin. The Edies no longer attempt to keep up appearances, and both actresses deserve commendations for wearing outfits that cling to or expose their bodies in immodest ways. Hames dons tight black turbans, Little Edie having lost her hair due to alopecia.
The opening night audience, clearly full of fans of the documentary, actually applauded Hames’ appearance in the outfit, indicating the almost electric engagement with the show in its second act. McManus’ timing and star quality give Big Edie enormous charisma, even though the role is bedridden for much of its time on stage. Big Edie's number “Jerry Likes My Corn” proves both sweet and mildly insane. At one point, the Edies air their decades-long grievances with each other. Their simultaneous complaints to the audience have such yapping musicality, it could be an actual number.
Meanwhile, Hames’ poignant song “Around the World” and its reprise reaches emotional heights at which the play’s first half only hints. Musical numbers generally connect audiences to the roles’ feelings, but Grey Gardens’ songs also express the Edies' lack of contact with the world. When Little Edie breaks into the patriotic, George M. Cohan-esque “The House We Live In,” it’s both rousing, pitiful and comical. The ladies’ mental states, like the Bouvier family grounds, have run riot and become, in the words of Hamlet, “an unweeded garden that grows to seed.”
At least Actor's Express discovers in Grey Gardens some earthly delights.