Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

Photo by Joan Marcus

Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson star as Jackie O.’s recluse relatives in the new musical, “Grey Gardens.”

‘Grey Gardens’ documentary gets makeover on stage

By Scott Harrah

Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) has done the unthinkable. He’s taken an obscure documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric aunt and cousin and adapted it into an epic historical stage musical that far surpasses the 1975 film of the same name. Wright’s incandescent adaptation of “Grey Gardens,” complete with a lush original score, is so ambitious and grand in scale, that it is almost unfathomable that it is based on an indie film that catered to a cult of underground fans.

So much has been written about “Camelot” and the many myths about the Kennedy dynasty and Jackie, but until now we’ve known very little about Jackie’s aristocratic Long Island family, the Bouviers. By the 1970s, the Bouvier’s Grey Gardens estate in East Hampton, inhabited by 81-year-old invalid and former socialite Edith Bouvier Beale, and her offbeat 58-year-old daughter, “Little Edie” Beale, was in such a state of disrepair (and filled with stray cats and raccoons) that the Suffolk County Board of Health had condemned it. After numerous newspaper articles about Jackie O.’s relatives living in squalor, the former first lady reportedly reached into her own pockets to clean the place and bring it up to county code to help her aunt and cousin avoid being evicted. The story itself is ultimately tragic, but Doug Wright does a brilliant job of chronicling the history of Grey Gardens and its glorious heyday in the 1940s, when Edith Bouvier Beale would host chic parties there for her high-society friends.

The first act is set in the summer of 1941 as Edith Bouvier Beale prepares to host a garden party celebrating her daughter’s engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh). Christine Ebersole brilliantly plays Mrs. Beale, an elegant blueblood who spends most of her time sipping cocktails and singing songs with her live-in accompanist, the flamboyant gay pianist George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman). Mrs. Beale is a domineering presence indeed, always wanting to be the center of attention, and is constantly at odds with Little Edie, often scaring off her daughter’s wealthy gentleman callers.

Everything about the first act, from the costumes to Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s original songs, seems straight out of a 1940s Cole Porter musical. Songs like “Being Bouvier,” “Body Beautiful Beale,” “The Five-Fifteen” and “Two Peas in a Pod” evoke the spirit of the era and help propel the story forward. Broadway veteran Sara Gettelfinger wonderfully plays Little Edie as a beautiful, independent-minded debutante in her 20s. In the past she’s dated such social register “catches” as Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty, but now she has a chance to marry a Kennedy and finally get away from her overbearing mother. Young Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier (Sarah Hyland and Audrey Twitchell) idolize their glamorous, grown-up cousin, but family patriarch J.V. “Major” Bouvier (John McMartin) is skeptical about his granddaughter’s engagement, and does not approve of the cavalier way his bohemian daughter has raised Little Edie. “The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility,” he says scornfully. When Mrs. Beale nonchalantly tells Little Edie’s fiancé about a scandal involving her daughter at a local country club, the engagement is seriously jeopardized.

The second act recreates much of the material from the documentary. It is now 1973, and the house has slipped into such a state of decay that it’s hard to believe it was once one of the grandest homes in the Hamptons. The elderly Mrs. Beale (Mary Louise Wilson) has been divorced for more than 30 years, is nearly destitute, and spends most of her time in bed as Little Edie (now played by Christine Ebersole in a remarkable dual role) roams around the disheveled house, discussing her broken dreams. Mrs. Beale and Little Edie have befriended a young handyman, Jerry (played by Matt Cavenaugh in the musical’s second dual role), who’s been hired to make numerous repairs to the house. At this point, the two Edies have become sad yet lovable recluses, but their sanity is questionable. As sad as the circumstances might seem, the songs are still first-rate, from the winsome “Jerry Likes My Corn” to the heartbreaking ballad “Another Winter in a Summer Town.”

Christine Ebersole, who has wowed audiences in Broadway productions of “Steel Magnolias,” “Dinner at Eight” and “42nd Street,” gives one of the most complex, difficult and challenging performances of her career. With its mega-talented cast of Broadway veterans, a trenchant book and such solid songs, “Grey Gardens” seems destined for a venue far bigger than Playwrights Horizons, very soon.

GREY GARDENS. Book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Grief. Now playing through April 9 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, between 9th and Dyer Avenue. Tickets $65-$75. (212-279-4200; www.playwrightshorizons.org).

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