"All women become like their mothers.
That is their tragedy."
(The Importance of Being Earnest)
Grey Gardens, currently mesmerizing all at Stages Repertory Theatre, achieves a theater coup worthy of Houdini. In the 2006 musical about two eccentric and destitute relatives of Jackie Kennedy, the actress who plays the mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act I literally becomes her daughter "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale in Act II. The transformation is so right, it's chilling.
It says everything about the love/hate relationship and terrible mutual dependence of these two lost characters, who survived for decades amid squalor and failed dreams in their flea-infested seaside mansion in ritzy East Hampton, New York. Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright's extraordinarily vivid Tony Award-winning show is simply magical throughout.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
Through June 14. $30
Although the real-life eccentric, reclusive residents on West End Road were constant irritants to the village, their former high-society ties were forgotten until The National Enquirer and The New Yorker ran exposés of their pathetic fall from grace. In 1976, Albert and David Maysles released their documentary Grey Gardens to universal acclaim, and the Beales became cult icons of unconventionality. The fame even revived Little Edie's nightclub career, if only fleetingly.
Playwright Doug Wright (Quills, I Am My Own Wife) based his book on the documentary, but realized that the bitchy ebb and flow between mother and daughter in the ramshackle house by the sea would only make sense if prefaced by scenes from their former life of privilege. From such a high, he says in Act I, how did it go so horribly wrong?
In a prescient, impressionistic first act, it's 1941, and Edith (Nancy Johnston) is preparing an engagement party for her daughter "Little" Edie (Rachael Logue in a most impressive Stages debut) and go-getter Joe Kennedy (David Matranga). Mom is artsy and bohemian. She loves to sing and is fawned over by her very gay companion and accompanist George (Jonathan McVay). Her unconventional life shocks her upper-crust father, Major Bouvier (David Grant), who finds such celebrity intolerable. A love of song isn't acceptable in the social register.
Rebellious daughter Edie, who dreams of being a performer herself on Broadway, is too much like her mother, and the constant sparks between them threaten to engulf the family. Young and proud cousins Jackie and Lee (Morgan Starr and Janie Stewart) witness the circus and are prodded to "marry well," while faithful family retainer Brooks (Kendrick Mitchell) takes the antics in stride. Wanderlust and artistic temperament butt against family propriety and the hypocrisy of the country club set. But so does mother/daughter jealousy. Big Edie's interference destroys Edie's chance for marriage and escape, while Mom's loveless marriage crashes in divorce.
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In Act II, set in 1973, Little Edie (Johnston, with her own personal coup de theatre for the double role) bursts through the patched-up screen door with the most invigorating opener, the gloriously perverse "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," her personal manifesto on how to dress, how to live and how to survive. "The best kind of clothes for a protest pose / Is this ensemble of pantyhose / Pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt / That doubles as a cape." And in costumer Andrew Cloud's fantastic creation, that's just what she wears. His eye is perfect for everyone else, too. Especially apt is present-day Big Edie's soiled yellow turtleneck just wrapped around her, exposing her shoulders, with the loose neck dangling in front. It says everything about Mom's delicate psychic condition. As Act II's Big Edie, Susan O. Koozin, with a wild shock of gray hair, is more than apt, she is superb.
"Sometimes I think I have the saddest life," rues Little Edie. Dreams may shatter, but ghosts remain. Now, the reclusive duo feed upon each other, yet obsessively cling to each other for security and need. Slacker Jerry (Matranga, channeling early Nicolas Cage), who does odd jobs around the house but remains as aimless as his wacky employers, unleashes Big Edie's maternal instincts, rousing Little Edie's resentment. As she has so many times before, Edie packs her bags, taking her favorite birdcage with her, but freezes at the fence gate. Against the sound of sea birds and ocean waves, her dreams evaporate in the haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town." Invalid Mom wails, "I need you, Edie!" There's nothing left but to go back. Sadly, it's what they both want.
The musical is all of a whole, with a remarkably fluid blend of music, lyrics and book. It's gritty, poetic, able to shock and quick to evoke laughter and tears. The stylized production is imaginatively realized by scenic designer Kevin Holden — philandering Dad is portrayed by a big empty picture frame. Director Kenn McLaughlin and musical director Steven Jones keep the pace relentless, as it should be, and the cast delivers the goods magnificently, especially leading ladies Johnston and Koozin. Their standing ovation during curtain call is the first in months that's actually deserving.
Scoffers have been predicting the demise of musical theater for as long as the form's been in existence. With a show like Grey Gardens, Broadway's in no hurry to close. This show aims for the stars.