Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Grey Gardens

Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
(2006)

Production photo

In 1973, the American tabloid press, desperate for some scandal to write about, discovered that an aunt and cousin of shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis' wife Jackie (perhaps better known as Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of JFK) were living in squalor and dirt, doing little but fighting each other and loving their multiplicity of cats.

The basis for Grey Gardens could therefore hardly be thinner. The first half is like a marginally rewritten version of The Philadelphia Story set in 1941. Then when the audience returns after their interval drinks, they are dropped into what feels like an episode of The Addams Family.

Michael Greif's production is held together by Christine Ebersole, who gives not one but two tremendous performances. Before the interval she plays society matron Edith Bouvier Beale, a lady who enjoys the high life in an aristocratic society that hardly notices a war raging in Europe. After the break, she becomes her own daughter, Edie, dressed hideously and on the verge of madness.

Following a brief sight of what is to come, Allen Moyer's lavish and extremely expensive set opens out to reveal one of the many living rooms at the massive Beale mansion in East Hampton, Long Island.

There, pretty blonde Edie (Body Beautiful) Beale played by Erin Davie has woken on the morning of her marriage to Joseph Patrick Kennedy. Her intended is a young man who is already being groomed to become the first Catholic president of the USA. Matt Cavenaugh makes him handsome enough but the drive and intelligence of someone whose brother eventually fulfilled his Presidential destiny after Joseph's early death in the war are not too apparent.

The only blights on the horizon are the absence of the bride's philandering father and the desire of her mother to steal the limelight. Miss Ebersole does this anyway, with her attractive singing voice and as a wise-cracking comedienne whose sense of humour changes but entertains in both milieus.

In the background, not only do we see sad, piano-playing Gould (Bob Stillman) playing a long-vanished type, the perennial house guest longing to return to a louche life in the clubs of New York, but also, as a reminder of why this show exists, young Jackie Bouvier (Sarah Hyland) and her tiny sister Lee (Kelsey Fowler).

The parents scupper the wedding, Edith by tittle-tattling maliciously about her daughter's unsuitability to be a politician's wife and her absent husband by seeking a Mexican divorce.

Roll on 32 years and Grey Gardens lives up to its name. The two women exist together reliving their intimate love-hate relationship, too similar to get on or part. Now, Miss Ebersole portrays Edie, for whom a glittering life is still a dream but an impossible one. Her mother is now played by the powerful Mary Louise Wilson. The pair embarrassingly fight over the 17 year old pest control man and survive on memories.

The music contains some memorable tunes, particularly The Girl Who has Everything, beautifully sung by the star, which repeats throughout, and Daddy's Girl, without being wildly exciting.

The story, written by Doug Wright who had a hit with the even quirkier I Am My Own Wife, is at its best as embittered Edie gets extreme towards the end. This is not obvious subject matter for a Broadway musical but is carried by Christine Ebersole's tremendous stage presence, well supported by the remainder of the small cast.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher