A Second Act Triumph: Little Edie Happy at Last

111306 article heilpern A Second Act Triumph:  Little Edie Happy at LastThe new Broadway musical Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Greif, is a tale of two acts. After last season’s successful run at Playwrights Horizons, the show’s creators tried to solve the problem of the expository first act, but what they might have done is drop it entirely—it would have been a courageous stroke of mad genius. The evening—with Christine Ebersole’s wonderful, inspired performance as the middle-aged Little Edie Beale—belongs entirely to the second act.

It’s a neat gimmick that Ms. Ebersole also plays Edith Bouvier Beale (the impossible, smothering mother of Edie) in the problematic Act I, set in 1941. But I’m afraid that, with its pastiche period score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the overripe, name-dropping melodrama played out at the Grey Gardens mansion in East Hampton reminds us uncomfortably of the kind of old-fashioned minor Broadway musical satirized in The Drowsy Chaperone:

She is the girl

Who has everything

Talent and beauty sublime!

The crowds and the clamor

Aroused by her glamour

Will fade like the echo of a chime.

She’s the girl who has every thing …

But time.

Actually, time is the one thing Big and Little Edie do have. (They both died in their 80’s.) But the giddy Act I score is mostly a familiar blend of Noël Coward and Cole Porter (later, it’s Irving Berlin, gospel choirs and bittersweet Sondheim). The Noël/Cole tribute is intended to convey worldly sophistication, like Big Edie’s suave pianist and pet homosexual, George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman)—himself a too-familiar type. Enter handsome, young Joseph Kennedy Jr. (brother of Jack), with his eyes on the White House and the “It” girl, Little Edie. “Somewhere in Athens,” the pet pianist gushes to Joe, “there’s a pedestal missing its statue …. ”

Doug Wright, who wrote the book for Grey Gardens (he’s also the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife, a monologue about an East Berlin transvestite), is on automatic pilot throughout the first act. He overplays the Kennedy card. The future Jackie Kennedy Onassis—cousin of Little Edie—is on display as a cute child in jodhpurs, along with younger sister Lee. “Lovely to meet you, Mr. Kennedy,” Jackie says to Joe as she curtsies.

To which Joe responds all too knowingly, “This kid’s got poise to spare, hasn’t she?”

She certainly has. When Little Edie’s pre-engagement party to Joe is sabotaged by wicked “mother, darling,” a catfight follows between Big Edie and her resentful daughter. “I’m afraid the future of the Bouvier name now rests with you,” Grandpa Bouvier, a crusty old major, says to Jackie and Lee before they’re ushered from the room. “Make me proud, ladies. Make me proud.”

Hence the major’s rousing advice to one and all in song, “Marry Well.” (“With your eye on the ball / And your feet on the fairway / Hit it high, little girls—marry well!”)

Act I promises to ignite, but never quite catches. Crucially, there are only tenuous hints of a connection with the far more complete and accomplished Act II. We learn that privileged “mother, darling” is “that most pitiable of creatures—an actress without a stage.” The narcissistic mother—like the clingy daughter—wanted to be a star. But there’s no disturbing indication of what’s fatally wrong, only a frothy soap opera with “warning clouds.” It’s impossible to believe that the Little Edie played by Erin Davie in the first act is any relation to the irresistibly eccentric, worrying, middle-aged Edie played by Christine Ebersole in the second.

We are in a different show the moment the curtain goes up 32 years later on a squalid Grey Gardens overrun by cats and raccoons, with the bedridden, awful octogenarian mother cared for by the doting, resentful, still-ambitious daughter. This second act is closely based on the 1975 Maysles brothers’ documentary, Grey Gardens. Cult followers can recite the lines of the vamping ladies onscreen like fans watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A great line from the musical, however—or any musical—belongs to dramatist Doug Wright. He gives it to mother: Big Edie announces wearily during one of her daughter’s rebellious turns, “It’s very difficult to bring up a child 56 years of age.”

We are at a horror show. There’s a whiff of Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte in the fetid air, a campy pleasure in the near-grotesque freak show. The Beales make voyeurs of us all. Grey Gardens cultists find both the elderly nagging mother and her trapped, resentful daughter adorable nonconformists, bohemian outcasts and determined survivors of a hypocritical world.

But they don’t strike me as heroic. The two of them were surely damaged people who avoided all sense of reality in pathetic mutual reliance and a haze of exaggerated nostalgia. (The glamorous Little Edie went neurotically bald in her youth. Hence the exotic turbans and nutty outfits she created for herself that turned her belatedly into a fashion icon.) It was her dominating mother who manipulated and ruined her “child-like” life. In the closing scene of the film, there’s a terrible, ghostly instant when Little Edie has danced for us and suddenly goes dead behind the eyes.

The eyes of Ms. Ebersole’s still-beautiful Edie are always alive—wistful with yearning perhaps, but never far gone. It’s the one difference in her uncanny impersonation of the real-life Edie on film. (They even look identical.) In another coup of inspired casting, Mary Louise Wilson is the perfect reincarnation of the mother. But the evening belongs to a triumphant Christine Ebersole.

I’ll whisper this: In Act l, she’s less convincing as her own mother! Miss Ebersole in starchy finery isn’t quite to the manor born. She’s too innately warm a performer to play the Brahmin. But from the moment she strolls onstage as the startling, funny, endearingly nutty Edie—and nails the wittiest song in the show, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today”—she’s home.

Superlative Sam

I’d like to pay tribute to the recent, all-too-brief visit to New York of the finest production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot I’ve seen in my life. For four performances, the Skirball Center at New York University was blessed with leading interpreters of Beckett from the Gate Theater in Dublin; directing them was Walter Asmus, who assisted Beckett on his own seminal production of Godot for the Schiller Theater in Berlin.

It’s a reasonable idea to see Waiting for Godot every decade or so, to remind ourselves that we’re still half-alive. This was quite an opportunity. The Irish understand Beckett, the Irishman, in their bones. Here was an internationally acclaimed production of Godot that I found miraculously right in every conceivable way—and yet some criticized its masterly cast for milking laughs.

They must be joking. It wasn’t the great actors—Barry McGovern’s Vladimir, Johnny Murphy’s Estragon, Stephen Brennan’s Lucky and Alan Stanford’s Pozzo—who were milking Beckett’s formative tragicomedy. It was the audience.

It’s a New York phenomenon: In every audience there are always some who are eager to inform the rest of us that they’re in on the joke. It’s an unfortunate expression of our natural enthusiasm—like the automatic standing ovation, where the audience is really applauding itself.

A decade ago, the Gate Theater brought its Samuel Beckett festival to New York and, reviewing it for The Times, the usually tolerant Vincent Canby appealed to audiences to … behave. He was irritated by the easy, knowing laughter that greeted even the darkest comedies in the festival.

Are there any sadder words than the innocent child’s “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow”? Are there any more tragic figures in modern times than we who were born astride the grave?

Beckett’s humor is bitumen black. As the line in Endgame goes, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that.” Though humor and talk are the defense mechanisms of suffering humanity, and though this apparently austere playwright cherished the banana skins of Irish vaudeville, Samuel Beckett is mordant—not heady, when the light gleams an instant and then is gone.

Duck Soup

It’s almost inconceivable that the unfortunate new musical Mimi le Duck was even produced. Currently at the New World Stages and intended, I guess, as a whimsical comic fable, it seems to have a thing about quite big penises and bicycling around Paris on a very small stage.

Mimi le Duck tells the story of a Mormon housewife from Ketchum, Idaho, who abandons her Beckettian husband, and her successful career as a painter of ducks for QVC, in order to experience a wild and crazy life of tempting romance, Gypsy pickpockets and torch singers in mythical Gay Paree.

It ain’t An American in Paris, it’s true. But it does have the surprising appearance of 79-year-old Eartha Kitt as a Parisienne chanteuse and boardinghouse owner. As only she can, Ms. Kitt hijacks the first act with two solo songs—one typically suggestive and purring, the other not. The rest is hard to credit, and I fled at the intermission. Mimi le Duck ran out of le luck.