“Grey Gardens” fascinates with stunning Christine Ebersole

Feminist or camp, the musical serves up wit, imagination and panache
By Lucy Komisar

The fascination of “Grey Gardens” is in its depiction of what happens when rich people lose their wealth. Wealthy eccentrics are cosseted while poor relatives are held in contempt. Edith Bouvier Beale (a stunning Christine Ebersole) is flakey but monied, and elegantly garbed. We find her amusing. When Ebersole plays her daughter, Edie Beale, some thirty years later, she is an oddball who bulges unattractively out of bag-lady garments, an object of ridicule and pity.

The play by Doug Wright is based on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary film about the two Beales, who were of interest only because they were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It is at the same time a feminist parable and a gay camp satire about women, depending on whose eye is doing the beholding. It is also a fascinating, witty, imaginative and very entertaining production.

In 1941, Edith Bouvier Beale has a rich stockbroker husband. But her true companion is George (Bob Stillman), the sad, rakish, gay piano player who lives in her East Hampton mansion and says he feels “kept,” which he is. So is she, just a husband away from disaster.

Daughter Edie (Erin Davie, a charming ingénue) has been brought up to inhabit the world of the privileged. She is about to marry Joe Kennedy (Matt Cavenaugh), who in the tradition of rich men is looking for arm candy. Kennedy tells her that he will be president: “Me and the old man mapped it out.” Marrying Edie is part of the plan, giving him classy baggage for the White House. (This part of the story is not based on fact.)

Edie‘s cousins Jackie (Sarah Hylan), who will wed another Kennedy, and Lee (Kelsey Fowler), who will marry a Radziwell, are insufferable snobs who sing, “Marry well.” (Original music is by Scott Frankel, clever lyrics by Michael Korie.) Davie as young Edie exudes joy, but, underlying that, shows a frantic insecurity.

Edith Beale‘s self-centered sensibility is tinged with darkness, made apparent in a racist song sung in the presence of a black servant (Michael Potts). The big garden party for the couple, to which the groom‘s parents have been invited, turns out a disaster. (Ebersole has an elegant, luscious voice as she sings about her husband‘s “arriving on The Five-Fifteen.”)

Sans husbands, sans money, the worlds of Edie and her mother collapse. Curiously, “Little Edie,” who always spoke finishing-school English, also loses that to an exaggerated New York accent.

Based on board of health and media accounts, Edie and her mother lived in a debris-strewn 28-room brown shingled house with 52 cats. The author, who invented gay George the piano player, hasn‘t dropped that prism. Edie (Ebersole) is a flaming satire on women. Now 56, she steps on a scale and looks through binoculars at the numbers.

But the play is more serious than camp. Satirizing the snobbery of the polo class circa 1972, Edie wears a “revolutionary” leopard skin tank suit to declare, in screeching voice, that “the full length velvet glove hides the fist.” There are funny Norman Vincent Peale clichés and a riveting military and flag number. Mother (now the dry Mary Louise Wilson) maintains her memories and power; daughter never had much of either. Edie is flamboyant, but she sings of being a caged bird. That‘s the feminist side of the story.

Beyond the text and the personal politics, of course, is Ebersole. The rich trills of her singing voice and the pitch-perfect tragi-comedy of her interpretation are memorable. At the head of an excellent cast, she gives a bravura performance.

“Grey Gardens.” Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets by Allen Moyer. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Choreography by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Christine Ebersole, Mary Louise Wilson, John McMartin, Bob Stillman, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Potts, Sarah Hyland, Erin Davie, Kelsey Fowler.

Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48 St. Tue 7 pm; Wed-Sat 8 pm; Wed & Sat 2 pm; Sun 3 pm. $36.25-$111.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.greygardensthemusical.com/.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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