The most telling portrayal onstage last season was twofold, and although it was the most honored as well, its Off-Broadway status made it ineligible for the 2006 Tony Awards. But just check out the Tony list this season. Grey Gardens, which took root Off-Broadway and flourished through three sold-out extensions at Playwrights Horizons, has been transplanted to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre. Let the last round of hosannas begin.
Christine Ebersole is the acclaimed chameleon in question in this trainwreck-riveting musical character study, advancing Two Faces of Edie - both named Edith Bouvier Beale but differentiated by the diminutive; she's "Big Edie" in Act I (1941) and then her adult daughter, "Little Edie," in Act II (1973). Doug Wright, who won a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for writing I Am My Own Wife, has constructed a kind of I Am My Own Mother book that shows both parallel lives in spiraling decline - ladies who stayed too long at the fair, missed the brass ring of opportunity and saw it turn to rust and dust before their eyes.
They suffered all this without ever leaving their home, Grey Gardens, an elegant, 28-room East Hampton manse first seen in full fancy-ball finery for the engagement announcement of Little Edie to Joe Kennedy's first-born; his second-born would wed Little Edie's first cousin, Jackie Bouvier, and become President of the United States.
This is the first brass ring to fall through the cracks. Two painful, one-two fiscal punches followed: Big Edie's disinheritance by her father and her divorce from her husband. A dizzy, head-spinning fast-forward 32 years to Act II, and Grey Gardens has become a dimly lit ghost of its former grandeur. The Beales subscribed to Quentin Crisp's key to good housekeeping: "When you don't dust, after three or four years, you hardly notice it at all." Add to this unsightly, unsanitary mix 52 cats, raccoon houseguests and such decrepitude that the Suffolk County Board of Health waved eviction notices at the Beales. At this juncture, Lee Radziwill approached documentarians Albert and David Maysles about creating a film portrait of herself and the Bouvier family. When research took them to Grey Gardens, Radziwill went thataway and they emerged in two years with a classic look at how the mighty had fallen into a mire of their own making.
Oblivious to the cameras like true recluses with nothing left to hide, the Beales let their idiosyncrasies hang out, and some of their unscripted exchanges have been turned into songs by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. It was Frankel's bright idea to vocally match Ebersole's Act I Edith with Mary Louise Wilson's elderly Act II Edith - a dead-on My-Mother-Myself match-up, musically and emotionally.
"I couldn't do it without her," Ebersole trills about her scene partner and other self. "We don't try to imitate each other or hook up in that way, but there is this inner rhythm, this inner tennis game where the balls get lobbed back and forth. You don't ever worry about what's going to happen. You feel safe. She is such a joy to work with."
There is a catch in Ebersole's voice that can go comedic as easily as it can go dramatic. She is expert in both worlds, but music is the way she gets into roles - comedy, drama or musical. She is at her best in parts that are a blend of all of the above - Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, for handy, Tony-winning example - but she doesn't necessarily need music to make roles sing. As the dithering hostess in Broadway's last Dinner at Eight, she worked herself into an aria of hilarious hysteria over a fallen aspic ("It was like the eleven o'clock number. I got applause without singing a note"). Grey Gardens turns this act into an art.
"I always try to have compassion for the character I play," Ebersole says. "Sometimes that illuminates the comedy, sometimes the drama - that's what life is. I don't approach a role saying, 'Well, this is a funny character,' although there are those technical aspects about getting a laugh. I'm just true to the character. If they don't laugh, it doesn't matter because I'm just being truthful."
Her Beale-pealing truths come from the documentary film, which she encountered, independently of being asked to do Grey Gardens, almost three years ago when in the California doldrums filming a short-lived series for the WB network ("Kid Mayor," which wasn't even elected for a second episode). "I was trying to think of what I could do with my free time, so I asked for a list of DVDs from Jeff Danis, a very dear friend of mine. He asked me if I had seen "Grey Gardens," and I said, 'I think I've heard of it, but I never saw it,' so I went and rented a bunch of DVDs, but I never watched any of the others - just "Grey Gardens" morning, noon and night. I was absolutely, endlessly compelled by these characters."
Ben Brantley, assessing "one of the most gorgeous [performances] ever to grace a musical" in The New York Times last March, deduced that the lady had done her homework: "Anyone who has seen the 1975 Maysles brothers documentary that inspired this show will know that Ms. Ebersole looks, sounds, moves and (most important, for much of this show's audience) dresses with eerie exactitude like the real Edie Beale."
Big Edie died at age 81 in 1977, two years after the documentary's release. She never realized her dream of being a singer, but her death sent Little Edie, then 60, into a brief mad fling into Manhattan cabaret to realize her dream of being a singer - Hairspray's Scott Wittman, who worked on her act, later directed Ebersole's cabaret act - but it was too little and too late. She died in 2002 at age 84, forgotten in Florida.
One of the tender mercies of Grey Gardens is that a great performance by Christine Ebersole has brought the Beales to Broadway - a happy ending they only fantasized about.