GREY GARDENS – Broadway, January 2007
January 24, 2007
Grey Gardens is a shimmering jewel of a show with two magnificent characterizations by the achingly tragic Christine Ebersole and the cunningly comic Mary Louise Wilson. It is an utter delight to see two such exquisite craftspeople wend their way through what can only be described as performances of a lifetime – though I’m sure these two top-notch actors will prove that prediction wrong in some future production no one has yet imagined. Acting students should stampede the Walter Kerr to study what these women do. But I gush.
As I age – and I do – I find my affection for the American Musical Theatre deepening even when I am dismayed by certain productions which become popular. But with Grey Gardens I have experienced that rare joy of being both laugh-out-loud amused and genuinely touched by one Broadway musical. What the creators of this almost chamber opera have wrought – and I mean “wrought” rather than “written” – is a piece of entertainment that at once appears to be all tradition but is actually something truly new. Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) along with the director Michael Greif and musical stager Jeff Calhoun have taken source material that would seem impossible to musicalize without satire or camp into a wholly-formed organism that makes one think “Why wasn’t this done before?” They have taken a documentary and created a past for it. There are sections of the show that are verbatim from the film. What amazed me most is the way not only images but language and songs are fragmented and reformed in different ways throughout the evening. Like looking backwards through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes while standing on one’s head. What the creators have done is put us in the minds of the characters – a horrifying and delightful place to visit though one wouldn’t want to live there.
Ms. Ebersole and Ms. Wilson eerily ape the voices and mannerisms of the real Edies. (If you have never seen the Maysles’ film do so before seeing this musical if only for the spine-tingling jolt one repeatedly gets at a turn of a phrase or an inflection from these captivating ladies.) But there’s more to these performances than mere mimickry. There’s a depth of feeling that is riveting. Near the end of the show, Ms. Ebersole, silent and unmoving, holds the audience in her power. Her next line is heart-crushing. It’s what I expect from a musical. She deserves every award in town for this moment alone. But she sings, too, like a thrush (both during and after a storm) so new awards shall have to be carved out of metals which have yet to be discovered to bestow upon her. She portrays Little Edie not as a freak to be laughed at but as a smart woman trapped by circumstances who herself finds the circumstances to be laughed at. It sounds convoluted but she does it in some of the most unflattering but perfect costumes ever wrapped around a torso.
The conceit of having the actress who plays Little Edie in Act Two play her own mother in Act One might seem like a carnival trick. But here it is the key to the drama. Erin Davie shines as younger Little Edie in Act I. The songs are wonderful. The strange off-rhythm in sections of “The Five-Fifteen” mirror things to come. The pastiche pieces that Edith (the mother) sings with her flamboyant accompanist (the spot-on Bob Stillman) are gems. Someone please sing “Hominy Grits” at my wake! “The Telegram” is one of the finest dramatic songs I’ve ever heard. With wit and humor to spare it deals a crushing plot point as a mini-play. Yet that’s how I’m seeing it now. While it’s happening it seems nearly ordinary. Everything seems so commonplace but everything is ever so slightly skewed. The true magic is that the creators make the ending seem inevitable.
Not to be missed.