In Grey Gardens, Ebersole more than masterfully channels both Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beales of the funny-if-it-weren’t-so-tragic seventies documentary of the same name. She luminously inhabits mother Edith in act one and then incredibly suspends any disbelief that you are watching anyone but the real Little Edie in the second act. Right before your eyes, a radiant and breathtaking Ebersole becomes Little Edie.
It probably goes without saying, but to really appreciate the production’s excellence, as well as to be truly informed about the real-life train wreck, you must see the documentary.
The film, of course, documents the depths of eccentric squalor and neglect to which Edith and her daughter Little Edie -- relatives of the former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis -- succumbed. And they did so in the rarefied Hamptons, no less.
Thanks to a potent mix of intriguing fact and supposition by Doug Wright, the musical telling of their story provides plausible answers to the question of how the once mighty could have fallen so far.
In the first act, Wright’s book transports us back to pre-World War II 1941. Little Edie (a pitch perfect Erin Davie) is practically engaged to Joseph Kennedy (a winning Matt Cavenaugh as the scion seemingly destined for the White House before dying a war hero). However, her flirtatious mother Edith (Ebersole) -- a frustrated, would-be singer forced by her recalcitrant, cheating husband to give up her dream -- schemes as saboteur. Whether it’s a selfish fear of being alone or an innate jealousy of her own daughter, Edith single-handedly destroys Little Edie’s last best hope at marrying well.
For her part, Little Edie always harbors an ill-fated hope to someday escape Grey Gardens, yet the second act underscores the taut grasp of her mother. Now bedridden in 1973, the aging Edith (Mary Louise Wilson) remains in an irrational tussle of envy with Little Edie. Yet in these twilight years, they ridiculously vie for the attentions of the young handyman Jerry (Cavenaugh), one of the few remaining people still invited into their once glorious home.
What makes this theatre of the absurd so intoxicating is not just the flawless execution of replicating key passages of the original film, but also the way Little Edie is continually haunted by the specter of the life she could have had. While the second act begins as a downright silly caricature of the mother and daughter straight from the documentary, it transforms into a modern, poignant tragedy, where pathetic dismissal gives way to empathy. Credit Michael Greif's brilliant direction, Wilson’s powerful Edith and Ebersole’s heartwrenching Little Edie.
While I have absolutely no doubt that Ebersole and Wilson will be justly rewarded with Tony nominations -- and let’s be clear here…the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical will go to Ebersole -- the entire cast of Grey Gardens is as solid as can be. Truly exceptional among them are John McMartin in wonderful dual roles as both Major Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale, Bob Stillman as Goold -- the keyboard tinkling, booze-drinking hanger-on of Edith’s, and the terrific
Kelsey Fowler and Sarah Hyland, who portrayed Lee Radziwill and Jackie O, respectively, as children.
Allen Moyer’s stunning and transformational set design not only luxuriates in the Grey Gardens estate’s previous glory, but mixed with Wendall K. Harrington's stunning projection design in act two, he succeeds in evoking its future filthy disrepair. Similarly, William Ivey Long’s costume design expertly mines the evolution of the real Little Edie’s confounding fashion sense.
Finally, as if that weren’t enough, there’s the alternately gorgeous and disturbing score by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel that crescendos in each act with courageous show-stopping numbers sung with surprising lucidity -- if only for the moment -- by Ebersole’s Edith and Little Edie. In the end, it’s a triumph of the first order.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).