Grey Gardens Is Missing Its Heart
The Musical Gets Better as Its World Gets Worse
First of all: TOM SKERRITT'S NIECE! She plays Little Edie. That was cool. (I don't see a resemblance.) Second of all: Much of the first act of Grey Gardens could have been ruthlessly scrapped—straight into the bin!—to everyone's benefit.
Directed by Kurt Beattie, Grey Gardens is a musical based on the fascinating real-life story of Edith and Little Edie, a mother and daughter from the wealthy Bouvier-Beale clan, once great socialites (and cousins of Jackie O) who became fallen, cat-food-snarfing shut-ins.
Act one (the problem!) takes place in July 1941, when the Bouvier-Beales are living high on the gilded hog in their still-glorious Hampton estate. This part of the legend is necessary for context, to introduce the family, and to properly frame their fall. It needs to be, you know... there. But it is not worth fully one-half of this darn-nigh-three-hour show. And it is definitely not the most interesting or important part of the Grey Gardens story.
That part, sadly, is missing—but more about that in a moment.
Act one also suffers from its in-the-round staging, a hurdle for many plays and any musical. These actors' voices are not always up to the challenge of successfully working all four corners of the room. Important stuff is garbled and lost, forcing the audience to figure it out or forget about it. And then, well, the accents. Some have a peculiar habit of jumping from Connecticut to Boston to Brooklyn to huh? (Lookinatchu, Lady Skerritt.)
Most unfortunately, Edith (aka "Big Edie," played by Patti Cohenour) comes across as a feckless and conniving diva, impossible to warm up to, while Little Edie plays deeply ashamed and resentful. This era of the legend is largely fictitious. They could have played it any way at all. More love and devotion—and less hateful screeching—would have set us up better for the pathos to come.
But Allen Fitzpatrick is a highlight as Grandpa Bouvier, blustering and fussing precisely as a conservative, rich, old granddaddy should, often railing (in song!) about "eccentric show-offs" and "Communists" and "unpublished poets" and, worst of all, "that most pitiable creature—an actress without a stage!" He is the rock of act one. (Sadly, he's mostly dead by act two. Well, he comes back as a singing cat. It's weird.)
In a perfect world, act two would have led the production. (Or maybe even been the production.) Now they're cooking with gas! Except they aren't, because it's 1975-ish—32 years later—and there is no gas... or electricity or heat or water. We find ourselves in the septic cat-toilet that was once the glorious Grey Gardens estate, where we meet the Edith and Little Eddie we know and love from the documentary, chowing on their cat food and spinning their gilded yarns.
The Edith of act two not only steals the show, she runs it up the street and spanks it. Played by the fantastic Suzy Hunt, she is the perfect image of the real-life Big Edie, but her performance is not mere pastiche. She captures Big Edie's heart and gives it body and humor and warmth and optimism—cackling in her filthy bed, banging her cane and hollering at Little Edie ("It's very difficult to raise a child 56 years of age!"), wildly reminiscing (in song!), worrying a filthy old snot-rag that she keeps shoved in her saggy cleavage. Hunt's Mother Darling is the strength and heart of the show. And what a voice! And so unlike her younger self in act one...
Hunt also has great chemistry with Cohenour, who blossoms as Little Edie in act two. She tears up the stage with Edie's signature flag-march routines, compulsive pacing, and meticulously eccentric accessorizing. Her number "Revolutionary Costume for Today" is based on the famous clip from the documentary, which you should watch on YouTube immediately if you are unfamiliar.
But then the show ends... kind of nowhere, with two carping codependents wallowing in resentment and cat shit. (But sometimes bursting into song!) We never see the documentary happen. Jackie O never swoops in to save the day, 11th-hour-style. And, worst of all, we never get to see the unlikely late-in-life realization of Little Edie's star-spangled dreams. We never see her go to NYC, and she never stars in her own show. Which is a pity. That is the part of this story that really touches the heart—that sad redemption. Without it, we are left wallowing, too.