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Grey Gardens

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Cats and raccoons running rampant in a 28-room Easthampton house might make the news, but it won't make history unless the human tenants have their own connection to American legend. The sad fate of two such people, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, respectively aunt and first cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy and Onassis) and her sister Lee (later Radziwell), was the subject of Albert and David Maysles's 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens.

Named for that mansion, a fixture of the Hamptons social scene fallen into disrepair, the film is an absorbing commentary on what happens when rising stars fall. That's a choice theme for a musical, so the new stage Grey Gardens, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons under Michael Greif's direction, finds librettist Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie, and composer Scott Frankel exploring the complicated history of the two Bouviers, with decidedly mixed results.

A fitful combination of ideas, some inspired, some mediocre, the musical successfully charts the women's decline, but never satisfactorily answers the film's biggest question: How could this happen? To consider that question, the authors of the musical don't start where the film did, the end of the story, but rather at the beginning.

Specifically, the gorgeously appointed Grey Gardens of 1941 (the sumptuous set is by Allen Moyer), when everything might have gone wrong: The day of the party celebrating the engagement of young Edie (Sara Gettelfinger) to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh), which spotlight-craving Edith (Christine Ebersole) is overseeing and overtaking. History tells us that the engagement was unsuccessful, so the authors attempt to discern (based on some real-world evidence) what might have caused Edie, a young woman with everything before her, to end up with so little.

The proceedings play out like a period Philip Barry or Kaufman and Hart comedy, complete with a dandy upscale composer-accompanist for Edith in George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman), Edith's blustery father, J.V. "Major" Bouvier (John McMartin), and even, yes, the charming Jackie and Lee (Sarah Hyland and Audrey Twitchell).

The songs, a mixture of brand new big-band standards and Cole Porter-style musical repartee (snazzily orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and musical directed by Lawrence Yurman), definitely please, possessing toe-tapping melodies and given spirited performances by the cast members. There are occasionally surprises - Ebersole briefly sings a cheesily offensive mock-Oriental riff; her heart later breaks to the strains of "Will You?", as her relationship with Edie dissolves - but the tunes are overall a familiar, reassuring collection of polished period pastiche befitting the characters and situations.

But the second act, set in 1973 and essentially a musicalization of the documentary, defeats its authors. They make the intriguing choice of engaging Ebersole to play Edie, and bringing in Mary Louise Wilson to play Edith, and summon up all the film's camp appeal as the decrepit duo complain of past- and never-were glories with a crumpled Chekhovian resolve. What they don't do is replicate either the distinctive style of the film or the fresh originality of the first act, instead settling into that too-unsteady area in between.

Only one song, Edie's plaintive "Another Winter in a Summer Town," as she tries to step from her mother's shadow, digs into anyone's soul. While Edith's "Jerry Likes My Corn," about the young handyman (Cavenaugh) who helps her cope with what she's lost, is a curious highlight, other songs devoted to Edie's revolutionary fashion sense or Edith's "have your cake and eat it, too" lifestyle are themselves too mundane to depict the women's mundanity.

Neither the introduction into the action of Follies-like ghost figures nor Allen Moyer's newly reductive set help the second act tap into what we're truly intended to mourn: the gradual erosion of American royalty. Without a more thorough examination of the women and their diminishment, the first act's abundant promise goes unfulfilled, and the women's specific struggles and unique bond with each other are never fully brought to light.

Nonetheless, Ebersole does a remarkable job of making both Edith and Edie into sympathetic figures. She creates, across two different characters, one compelling portrait of American dreams embraced and squandered. But while her Edie is a fine approximation of the real one, who died in 2002, she never feels as true as the first-act Edith does: Ebersole mines those more frivolous moments for greater emotional depth.

Wilson doesn't have that problem; with Ebersole the focus, the older Edith remains relatively surface-bound (as did Edie in Act I). But if Wilson's not convincing as Ebersole 30 years later, she's an astonishingly accurate carbon copy of the documentary's Edith, zany physicality, warbling whine, and all.

No one matches her scene-stealing finesse, though Stillman amuses with his melding of Noël Coward and Cole Porter, and Hyland and Twitchell prove themselves precocious young talents in potentially jokey cameo roles. But if McMartin is one-note as the Major and as a radio preacher in the second act, he still brings a welcome color to his portrayals that Cavenaugh and Gettelfinger don't - they lack any charisma or charm to suggest they might have survived (or been noticed by) '40s high society.

They're the prime example of why the authors' attempts to tell an old story playing by modern rules doesn't entirely succeed: Larger-than-life figures require larger-than-life treatments from actors and writers alike. Greif is great at polishing grit; Wright, who penned the acclaimed I Am My Own Wife, specializes in highly internal writing that eschews traditional glitz. Neither is well-suited for tackling glittering grotesques like Edith and Edie.

Wilson and Ebersole expertly fill the gaps, but still can't supply the simultaneously timeless and dated spirit that made the documentary's unwitting stars light up the screen. Edith and Edie have earned permanent places of honor at Camelot's square table; the musical, while on the right track, can't join them quite yet.

Grey Gardens
Through April 9
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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