America is a country of bizarre second acts. This much was confirmed when I went looking for more information on Edith Bouvier Beale's musical output, and instead discovered www.greygardensofficial.com, a website run by a Beale niece-in-law hawking "a luxury lifestyle brand driven by a passion for elegant self-expression." If only Little Edie Beale had lived to see how it all turned out.
Big Edie and Little Edie, the stars of David and Albert Maysles' incredible 1973 documentary Grey Gardens, are also the stars of Grey Gardens: the Musical, which is currently onstage at the Wool Studio Theatre courtesy of Max & Louie Productions. It's a fascinating show at times, well-staged and marshaled by director Annamaria Pileggi, but somehow also frustrating in its profligacy.
The Beales were an upper-crust old New York family in the early twentieth century. Big Edie was a would-be singer who married well if unhappily, while her daughter Little Edie was an It Girl in the 1940s who dated many scions of powerful families, but never married. By 1973 the duo were living in squalor in their ramshackle ancestral home ("Grey Gardens") while cousin Jackie Bouvier was married to the president and now Aristotle Onassis. What brought the once high-flying Beales so low?
That's what Grey Gardens: the Musical seeks to explain. And that need to explain is what's so frustrating about the show.
The entire first act is set in the 1940s, when life was good for the Beales. Eccentric, but good. Debby Lennon plays Big Edie, who has plotted a nine-song performance to celebrate the engagement of Little Edie (Madeline Purches) to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), a cocky member of the nouveau riche who believes he just needs to kill a few Nazis and his path to the White House is clear — and won't a Beale look good on his arm? All they need is the approval of Little Edie's distant and demanding father, and both of them are set for life. There is music, and laughter, and after many tears and much angry negotiation between mother and daughter, Big Edie will even get to sing a song.
Is this happy domestic scene what anybody thinks of when they hear "Grey Gardens"? Or do you picture the dour middle-aged Little Edie wearing a jacket for a skirt and part of a curtain for a head scarf, blithely talking about spirit and revolution and how difficult it it is to keep the past and the present separate? That's the Grey Gardens that has been parodied, and loved, by multitudes. And it's nowhere in sight in Act One, which despite great performances from all concerned and some exemplary moments (you can not deny the frisson of Tom Murray as the Bouvier patriarch urging a young Jackie Kennedy to marry well), feels like a bait and switch.
The more-familiar Beales are present in the second act, and Debby Lennon has crafted an incredible version of middle-aged Little Edie in all her morbid charm. There is more wit and humanity in her performance of the second half's opening number, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," than in the entire first act.
Lennon and Donna Weinsting (terrific as the elderly, bed-ridden Big Edie) fall right in to the irascible-yet-tender dynamic. Their frequent disagreements are punctuated by Little Edie drifting off into happy reveries of her youth while Big Edie follows the advice of her radio idol Norman Vincent Peale and chooses to be happy and live with no regrets. Neither got what they wanted from life, but Big Edie is a realist — it's still her life, and she'll make the best of it.
As for Little Edie, she's lost in time. In "Another Winter in a Summer Town," she sings about middle age, yesterday and the end of her season while standing at the edge of the property with her suitcase packed. She looks back at the house and sees her younger self packing to run away after another unsuccessful engagement. With a rueful smile, the older Little Edie trudges back up the lane, returning to her front door. Mental illness, a relentless cycle of abandonment perpetrated by the men in their lives and perhaps too close a relationship has joined mother and daughter together for all eternity. But what does time mean to Little Edie here in Grey Gardens?