Betty Buckley and Rachel York in Grey Gardens
One of the most exciting aspects of covering the theatre in the 90s was the chance to witness all the wonderful women who brought their many talents to the role of faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in the stage version of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Chief among those joys was seeing how each actress would interpret "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye," two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's finest ballads. One of the greatest Normas — and perhaps the most heartbreaking — was Betty Buckley, whose thrilling delivery of both tunes still rings in this writer's ears.
Who knew that Buckley, 20 years later, would work similar magic with a song entitled "Jerry Likes My Corn"? Yet, that she does in the Bay Street Theater's current production of the Doug Wright-Michael Korie-Scott Frankel musical Grey Gardens, which continues through Aug. 30 at the Sag Harbor venue. Buckley, playing the elderly Edith Bouvier Beale, finds the inherent laughs in the lyric, but she also unearths a volcano of suppressed emotion, tears streaming down her face as she expresses love for an unlikely friend. Buckley, who made her name tearing at your heart in Cats, breaking that heart in Sunset and nearly stopping the heart in Carrie, is also giving one of her most humorous performances. She is deliciously funny as Big Edie, mostly at the expense of daughter Little Edie — yet there is also a palpable fear behind the barks.
Rachel York, whose Broadway credits include City of Angels, Victor/Victoria and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, has the daunting task of stepping into the parts created by Christine Ebersole, whose rangy soprano and quirky persona seemed tailor-made for the dual roles. It's a mammoth undertaking, both vocally and dramatically, yet York is up for the task, playing both the selfish Big Edie of the first act and the mentally unstable Little Edie of the second. She is especially persuasive in the latter: With a dead-on accent, she finds all the humor in "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," and her ever-growing disillusion is effectively played, culminating in a moving "Another Winter in a Summer Town."
Perhaps because Buckley was a stellar Madame Rose at the Paper Mill Playhouse, I was struck more than ever by the similar themes explored in Grey Gardens and the superior American classic Gypsy — showbiz fantasies, a mother who longs for the spotlight, a disapproving father and a disturbingly complicated mother-daughter relationship — although Gardens also deals with the shattering effects of mental illness.
Under the direction of Michael Wilson, Buckley and York are ably supported by multiple Tony nominee Howard McGillin, recently seen in the Broadway revival of Gigi, in the role of George Gould Strong; Matt Doyle as Joe/Jerry; James Harkness as Brooks Sr./Brooks Jr.; Sarah Hunt as Young Edie; and Simon Jones as Major/Peale. Yet, it is the piercing cries of Buckley's Big Edie, urging her daughter not to leave her alone, and York's look of pained resignation that haunt. For more information visit Baystreet.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens Their Favorite Things and Best in Show.