"How could American royalty fall so far so fast?" asks a reporter's voice from the back of the room at the beginning of "Grey Gardens," a musical adaptation of the 1975 Maysles brothers' documentary about the eccentric, washed-up socialites Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter Edith Beale ("Little Edie") and the infamous disrepair of their Grey Gardens estate.
With music composed by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, and a book by Doug Wright, this adaptation—directed by Danielle Robinette and Ryan Haase at StillPointe Theatre through Feb. 4—adds a fictitious backstory to the myths and mysteries surrounding the Bouvier family, while also unknotting the stringy relationship between Big and Little Edie.
Act one is set in a bright, pink parlor (designed by co-director Ryan Haase) inside the Grey Gardens mansion in 1941—faux pink flowers adorn the wall in a diamond pattern, a painted portrait of a younger Big Edie (with a cat on her lap) hangs above a marble mantle. On the left is a piano that cabaret singer Big Edie (played in the first act by Zoe Kanter) leans onto occasionally while singing along with her accompanist Gould (Adam Cooley), a charmingly flamboyant and caring pal who fills a platonic void that Big Edie's emotionally distant (and frequently out of town and philandering) husband Phelan leaves.
We're dropped into the story right as the engagement between showy and exuberant 24-year-old Little Edie (Christine Demuth) and straight-laced, clean-cut, White House hopeful Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (Bobby Libby) is to be announced. (Although in reality, Little Edie met Joe Kennedy once.) Eager to get out of Grey Gardens and into her own life, Little Edie also struggles with the notion that as the wife of a future politician, she'll be expected to maintain a sense of decorum (read: passivity or quietude) that she's not used to.
Those expectations of responsibility and respectability of women and girls during this time period in America are echoed by Big Edie's father, the burly Major Bouvier (Barney Rinaldi) in a booming musical number called 'Marry Well.' Here he advises Little Edie and her cousins Jackie (the future first lady to John F. Kennedy, played on the night I saw the production by Kate Kilner-Pontone) and Lee (who later became a socialite, played on this night by Compton Little). Basically, Major says, don't be like Big Edie; preserve the family name ("burnish the family crest"), and soar even higher socially: "Find a staunch young patrician/ Republican!/ With the blood and the brains to excel!" Major sings as the younger girls chime in about wearing chinchillas in Paris and living in villas in Milan.
Having been born with a leg up already, and with this looming marriage, Little Edie's on her way up the social ladder. But things fall apart. Big Edie receives a disappointing telegram, delivered by their butler Brooks (Terrance Fleming), that Phelan won't make it after all, that he's off in Mexico with a woman named Linda, and he hints at divorce. The gears start to turn; we see these notions of respectability and propriety (and shame, when a woman can't keep her husband) in white upper-class society wearing down on Big Edie. With Little Edie gone, she'll be truly alone.
If you've seen the documentary (or the many spoofs and references to the odd pair in, say, a "Documentary Now!" or a "Gilmore Girls" episode), you know that Little Edie doesn't get married after all, and that Big Edie remains single after Phelan divorces her, that the two of them wind up alone together. It's an ongoing joke and a continuous point of contention that Big Edie, with her boisterous personality perhaps, always scared away Little Edie's suitors—embarrassing her or revealing too much about Little Edie. In a scene leading up to the end of the first act, Kanter's Big Edie, fearful of the future and perhaps a bit jealous of her daughter, slyly and casually plants a seed in Joe's mind that Little Edie might not be as "pure" and virginal as he thought. Aiming for the White House (after a stint in the Navy and the Senate), Joe can't stand for any potential scandal; he calls off the engagement.
For act two, the audience moves next door to another stage, this time a closer resemblance to the Grey Gardens (circa 1975) we're more familiar with—rundown, dark, and musty, littered with trash, newspapers, clothes, broken furniture—a "28-room litter box," as a few resident mangy cat and raccoons, puppeteered by some of the cast from the first act, put it in song. Little Edie rants and rambles and fluctuates in and out of song, about the people of East Hampton (all of them judgmental and mean Republicans), how she and her mother are seen as outsiders. She reads from a news article about the health department's inspection of Grey Gardens, that its downfall is the "most atrocious, disgusting thing that ever happened in America"—a comical statement, in the context of distracting and sensational news of scandals affiliated with politics and celebrities, that is still painfully real today.
Here, Demuth's Little Edie is quite like the real one, who fidgets with her clothes (a button-down cardigan worn as a skirt, over a leotard, for example), talk-shouting with that New York/New England drawl. There's something in the way that Little Edie pronounces the word "staunch" in the documentary that really gets to me, delivered with a crazed confidence. Demuth does her best Little Edie here, in a musical number, belaboring and stretching out the vowels of the word, spelling it out and telling the room: "Staunch women, we just don't weaken."
Big Edie, most certainly a staunch older woman played in the second act by co-director Danielle Robinette, spends most of her time sitting up and reading or eating in a disheveled bed. A bit closer to death, it seems, she reflects on a life she doesn't regret ("I ate the cake I had," she sings, self-assured). She continues to bark at and bicker with Little Edie over male attention, including that of Jerry (Jon Kevin Lazarus), the simple and earnest young man who comes by to hang out, and who wants to help them clean up the house.
Much of the second act plays up the oddities of this hoarders' home and the eccentricities of the Edies, making the audience belly laugh. The StillPointe cast does their own great renditions of many of the documentary's funniest moments and idiosyncrasies (Big Edie cooking corn while she's in bed, Little Edie's spontaneous wardrobe changes, both Edies perpetually vying for the spotlight)—but also implores us to imagine what lies beneath the dusty surface. And just as, in the documentary, both Big and Little Edie are known to burst out into song extemporaneously, here in the musical it's the same, the dialogue and songs melting into and over one another smoothly.
After the dramatic development and buildup of the first act, the second act cuts to the heart of these tragi-comic lives, and the story sits immobile, in the way that neither Big Edie nor, especially, Little Edie can seem to escape this place. Big Edie complains about Little Edie but a moment later begs her to help take care of something; Little Edie (now well into her 50s) still talks like she's 24, dreams of marrying men and making it in New York City. Are they mired in apathy or complacency, a lack of upward mobility, or their utter interdependence on each other? Stuck in poverty, squalor, and disgrace, no one can ever leave Grey Gardens.