New York: On Wednesday afternoon, February 7, the insightful Grey Gardens celebrated its 100th Broadway performance, making the performance I witnessed later that evening the 101st, which is altogether fitting because the show itself is such a tour-de-force in every way that it very easily could be re-titled Drama 101.
Even more miraculous is that there is no reason for this deep, overarching musical to have proven such a resounding success. Doug Wright (a Pulitzer winner for I Am My Own Wife) has fashioned Gardens out of the muck that was the later years in the lives of mother and daughter Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie, the real life aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier before she went on to add the surnames of Kennedy and Onassis and the subjects of the Maysles' brothers documentary, also entitled Grey Gardens. The film portrayed the squalid living conditions of the two East Hampton hermits, who lived in a dilapidated 28-room mansion with no running water and an irreverent fashion sense after they caught the attention of the media.
Wright takes their craziness and turns it into something more sentimental, buttressing it with historical context. He sets Act One at the estate still in its prime, when Edith (here played by Christine Ebersole in her first of two roles in the show) was married to but estranged from her Wall Street executive husband Phelan and Edie (Erin Davie) was to announce her engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr (Played by Matt Cavenaugh). (Yes, that Joe Kennedy.) Edith's best friend is her companion, live-in pianist George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman). I imagine that most of the audience will dismiss Stillman's work as little more than piano-playing and an occasional bon mot, but his performance is far more important than that. He is the true north on the compass of the first act, and the only man who nurses the pained Edith's woes. Ebersole does a fine, nuanced job leaning on Strong, and the two share a quietly moving number, "Drift Away." Meanwhile, the two Beale women have a tempestuous relationship with one another, and eventually, with Wright merging both fiction and history, Edith sabotages Edie's chances with Joe.
If this first act feels somewhat hollow, that is because it primarily serves to set the stage for the riches to come. Act One exists as a prelude, and as such, consists of its share of filler, particularly with the number "Hominy Grits," leaning toward the side of racism (though in defense, it is most likely that Edith would have shared the sentiments of that song). The two halves of Gardens reflect two separate manners of storytelling, with the first more linear and straightforward, and the second slightly more oblique and dependent on knowledge of the Beales' lifestyle.
Act Two occurs over the course of one day 32 years later on - the time period covered by the documentary - where Edie still lives with Edith, resentful but tethered. Now Ebersole plays Edie, the daughter, while the marvelous Mary Louise Wilson inhabits the elderly Edith in ways spookily reminiscent of the real thing. Much of the material in this act derives straight from the Maysles' film, and fans will recognize every bit, including the opening scene where Edie discusses "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie weave the complicated tale of mother-daughter dependence and envy with a series of songs that shed light on what has become their wayward lifestyle. For instance, in that opening number, Edie drifts off after each chorus into a little sea of "da-dee-da-dee-das" that immediately transport the audience from a merely amusing number to something vastly more interior. Of course, the exteriors remain important and set designer Allen Moyer is to be credited for created Grey Gardens in both its splendor and its decline.
Gardens remains Ebersole's show, though, and it is her performance that locates the pathos of Edie's "little girl lost" sensibility. None of Frankel's and Korie's songs are memorable in a way that the searing numbers of this season's defining revivals, A Chorus Line and Company are - director Michael Grief is far more focused on telling the story of his show than stopping it. However, the final number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town" is as beautiful confession, as Edie vows to finally claim a life of her own, rendered even more poignant by the scene's climactic moments. The song is strong a lament to times gone by and opportunities forsaken as any ever performed. No one should let Grey Gardens become one of those lost opportunities in their lives.