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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Walter Kerr, New York

By Matt Wolf

  Mary Louise Wilson (left), Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens

To the ranks of defining Broadway musicals about the damage inflicted by mothers upon daughters - Gypsy, anyone? - we can now add Grey Gardens, the fascinating, sometimes beautiful, still-imperfect show about the same symbiotic, similarly named women who spawned the famous Maysles bros. documentary over 30 years ago. The ladies in question are, of course, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale, who plummeted from swellegant soirees to a life of mutual need and shared decrepitude in their 28-room East Hampton mansion - the Grey Gardens of the title. How did their fortunes fall so dramatically? That's the topic covered by Doug Wrights book and Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's score, which collectively are very, very good when by rights they ought to have been great.

In some ways, the Broadway Grey Gardens is less satisfying than it was Off Broadway last spring at Playwrights' Horizons, and not just because newcomer Erin Davie- the "Little" Edie of a first act set in 1941 - proves too vacant an occupant of so important a role. (There was a neat joke in the casting the last time round, which handed the part to Sara Gettelfinger, who, far from "little," is quite notably tall.) But instead of using Broadway to tighten the emotional screws, the show now seems suspended between the eerie chamber piece that it actually is and some bigger spectacle that has to give the audience its $111 worth (sigh). At its core - namely, when the simply astonishing Christine Ebersole is alone center-stage or interacting in the second act with the scarcely less galvanic Mary Louise Wilson - one is struck by the ruthlessness coupled with compassion with which the show's creators honor the warped legacy of those two women. But then comes a number like the simply bizarre second-act ensemble piece, "Choose To Be Happy," and Michael Greif's staging stops dead in its tracks. This is a piece about unconventional people, so it hardly needs the trappings of a conventional musical.

Elsewhere, the staging gives off signs of meddling where none was needed - a new first-act song, "Goin' Places," for "Little" Edie and her doomed paramour, Joe Kennedy, Jr. (played by Matt Cavenaugh, who is much better as the political swain in act one than he is as Jerry, the dim if hunky second-act companion to the bedridden Edith in act two). But all cavils fall away in the company of the two leads, Wilson's physical frailty at moving odds with her firm-voiced calls for comfort. Ebersole, meanwhile, continues to adopt a mysterious New York Jewish honk (not quite the right sound, one would assume, for this set) in the second half, but when she sings, one is transported to a Broadway age when character and a clarion purity of performance came first. Her acting, at the same time, charts the fall from societal grace - and from sanity - of, as Korie's song lyric puts it, "the girl who has everything" who instead ended up rattling around a large house, trapped by disappointment and loss and that old Broadway canard: a mother who is pretty much mad.


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