Friday, May 15, 2009

How their grey garden grew

Leigh Barrett and Sarah deLima ponder their ingrown lives in Grey Gardens.

The musical Grey Gardens, now at the Lyric Stage through June 6, essentially posits a central question of dramatic adaptation - what should a stage version of material from another medium bring to that material? At one level the musical's creators seem to answer, "A lot!" Indeed, they've supplied an entire first act to comment on, provide a backstory for, and otherwise reflect on what they've drawn (almost verbatim) from their source, the Maysles Brothers' notorious documentary about the eccentric life shared by "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale (aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy) along with dozens of cats in their dirty, decaying Hamptons mansion. But at another level their answer, I'm afraid to say, is "Nothing at all!" For the first half of Grey Gardens, mildly diverting as it often is, gives us almost no real insight into these two "cat ladies" and their strange, pathetic fate.

The show still has its appeal, however, because that second act has a weird vibe of genuine mental instability that one rarely senses in a musical (or on Broadway in general). "Little Edie" Beale, wearing her skirt upside-down and rambling on in a flat, little-girl drawl about revolution and her mother and whatnot, has been transported intact from the film, and given compelling stage life by local star Leigh Barrett. And she's nearly matched by Sarah deLima's impersonation of "Big Edie" Beale - an eccentric but seemingly saner presence who snipes and snaps at her daughter from a permanent state of bed-ridden, almost bare-breasted dishabille.

Of course the impact of these scenes (somewhat muted on stage due to a lack of actual cats, or their feces) is wrapped up in the inevitable question, "How did these two get this way?" Answering that question would seem to be one duty that distinguishes art from documentary. But alas, neither author Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, nor lyricist Michael Korie has any real idea how the Beales got that way. Their overlong first act does supply a smooth, smart evocation of their lost world of privilege and racist ease (Little Edie in the early 40's, above left), and it's constructed to provide appearances for a young Jacqueline Bouvier (and her little sister Lee). Add to this rather obvious gay-bait a kept piano player who's light in the loafers (Will McGarrahan) a hunky Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (R. Patrick Ryan) sniffing around Little Edie ("Somewhere a pedestal is missing its statue!" McGarrahan purrs), and a pastiche of "period" tunes copied from the Great American Songbook, and you have a clever show-queen contraption that's always threatening to tip over into camp - but never quite does.

The trouble is it never quite tips over into drama, either. Its central conflict - Little Edie's struggle to be free while her bohemian past catches up with her - is too generic and pre-packaged to explain the bizarre behavior to come, and playwright Wright never gives any sense of the budding, in-grown co-dependency between the "Edies" that would later flower so fully. You can tell that Lyric director Spiro Veloudos is well aware of this problem - but he hasn't really found a solution to it (I'm not sure one is possible). Instead he has directed the always appealing Aimee Dogherty, who plays the younger "Little Edie" in Act 1, to ape the mannerisms Barrett displays in Act 2 (Barrett, meanwhile, plays "Big Edie," her mother, in the first act. Got that?) But this feels like mere technical contrivance, as Doherty and Barrett aren't doing similar internal work - and at any rate the older Edie's most prominent mannerism, her constant patting of her head, was probably due to an understandable self-consciousness about her eventual alopecia rather than some mental tic.

So the musical never really delivers on its supposed reason for being. Still, the songs are clever, and the score eventually grows richer and more haunting in the more compelling second half, where Barrett and deLima give memorable performances. There's also solid work from the reliable McGarrahan and newcomer Ryan, as well as the remarkably poised Miranda Gelch, who actually looks quite a bit like the young Jackie. Set designer Cristina Todesco successfully conjures the eponymous house on the Lyric's tight stage, and Charles Schoonmaker's costumes, while not quite reaching the heights of his work on Light in the Piazza, are nevertheless subtle, lovely and accurate. In the end, I think Grey Gardens is only an interesting failure. But it is interesting.

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