The Playgoer: REVIEW: Grey Gardens

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

REVIEW: Grey Gardens

Little Edie: Live (left) and Real (right)

Grey Gardens
by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, Michael Korrie
starring Christine Ebersole
On Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre

I've rarely had feelings as mixed as those I walked away from Grey Gardens with. What to say? On the one hand this is a slick but satisfying musical, showing off some of the best of professional Broadway-level craft. And it is certainly an adult entertainment, aiming at a cut above Legally Blonde and getting there.

Yet I also can't shake the feeling that it just shouldn't be.

It may seem "unfair" to some to compare a work of adaptation to its source material. But when the source is that disturbing 1975 Maysels Brothers documentary--a record of the pathetic deterioration of real people--then it is hard not to feel not a little queasy at seeing it enacted under bright lights with beautiful stars to rapturous applause.

I should be clear that what's most questionable about Grey Gardens the musical is the choice to do it at all. The artists have clearly tried to translate and enact it tastefully. It is clearly a labor of love for the Beales, that mother-daughter team of dispossessed aristocrats. But right there, in merely describing the "outline" of the Grey Gardens as a narrative "plot", you see how real life automatically gets sentimentalized by commercial theatre. (And whatever the show's origins in the nonprofit worlds of Playwrights Horizons, Sundance, etc, its aesthetic strategies clearly place it in the commercial aesthetic, not a more challenging one.)

From the creators' perspective, the sentimentality is, no doubt, the tribute. But when addressing class upheaval and mental illness (which is what the real Beale story is about) sentimentality does a disservice. I say mental illness because that is what's clearly missing when you compare the theatrical version to the filmed documentary. The people captured by the Maysles' camera are clearly not just eccentric wacky folk. Yes, they are ultimately lovable and sympathetic. But in the film you are never allowed to forget these are people exhibiting the recognizable behaviors of the psychotic. Part of what is so pitiful (and yes, moving) about the film is watching two inmates in an unstaffed asylum, with no doctors and no meds. Those society has left behind.

What? Bouvier-family aristocrats--cousins of the first lady--left behind? Who cares, you say, when millions of families live through the same nightmare of abandonment every day without ever having known the comforts to which these women were once accustomed? Well this brings me to the "class upheaval" part I mentioned. Part of the appeal of the film, I suppose, has been its resonances of Chekhovian and Tennessee Williams tropes of faded or doomed aristocracy. In drama that invites sentimentality--people of a more delicate time preyed on by a coarser contemporary world. Of course, good productions of, say, Cherry Orchard and Streetcar avoid such an easy dichotomy by showing you the seeds of the old order's own self-destruction. And the distant cinema verité camerawork of the Maysles' film also reinforces a clinical look at what's changed over time--not just for the Beale ladies but for America.

A great missed opportunity in the musical Grey Gardens is this bigger picture. Its two-act structure allows some neat contrasts between 1940s luxury-nostalgia and 1970s tackiness. But little is noted of what's changing in the outside world. Yes, the old Beales are isolated at the end, and, yes, they have a visiting kid who brings some modern sensibilities (mostly just in speech and dress) into their bubble. But the film, I believe, is almost premised upon the audience bringing its own context to bear (in the case of the original release, a 1975 audience) on what's changed since the Beales' heyday. "Camelot" ended, Watergate and Vietnam happened, and the economy went down the toilet. No reference is made to these elements in the musical. Or the film, for that matter--but by not sucking you so aggressively into the Beales' own myopic perspective (as sentimental storytelling tends to do) the documentary encourages the spectator to fill in the gaps.

The one exception in the musical is a mock-Norman Vincent Peale gospel number called "Choose to be Happy" chiming in from a radio. Nice touch. But it's a brief an anomaly in an otherwise micro- not macro-focused show.

In short, the feeling we get watching the play is, "what a shame these difficult yet lovely people fell on hard times." What we--or at least I--think during the film is, "such may be what befalls those unprepared for any life other than that of 'Grey Gardens' and being married off to the Kennedys." (The fact that those arrivistes the Kennedys managed to skirt the changing times and still--all these years, deaths, and scandals later--still hold their status of power is another unremarked upon, though relevant point.)

Back to the "crazy" factor for a sec--It's a common flaw of fictional narrative accounts of mental illness that the victims are really just normal people underneath affected by traumatic incidents that disrupted their otherwise normal lives. Science tells us know that mental disorders may be suddenly triggered an unexplainable chemical shifts in the brain, and may even more likely reflect genetic dispositions that become especially aggravated. Ok, I'm no psychiatrist. But my point is that real life doesn't follow the patterns of cause-and-effect character-based narrative. (Duh.) Grey Gardens the musical, naturally, has to locate a "cause" for Little Edie's crazy behavior in Act II (i.e. 1975). So the girl we see in Act I is mostly (yes, I say "mostly"--more about that later) a normal happy rich girl preparing for a wedding. Then she gets betrayed by her mom and gets dumped--and lo and behold, that will prompt the very extreme character transformation leading to the odd creature (played no less by a different actress even) that we meet in Act II, who is, of course, the film's Little Edie.

Again, I'm no psychiatrist. But I think they would tell you the signs of the kind of condition so clearly displayed by the film's Little Edie aren't "caused" by bad things that happen to you. The signs are usually there all along, I imagine. Now it's true that the GG musical team is not blind to this and does plant some seeds of "acting out" behavior in the young Little Edie. Better yet, Erin Davie's performance in Act I really does go there, sometimes; she manages to turn from little blond debutante to clawing desperate animal on a dime a couple of scary times. But I still felt at intermission some whitewashing of what the real Little Edie was like when she was "little."

I'm going to stop for a second to note that my language is unfortunately creeping towards judging the mentally ill in negative terms. ("Whitewashing what?" you may ask.) I'm sorry our vocabulary still makes that all too easy, and the nature of blogging makes it less desirable to spend a week researching psychology further before writing this theatre review. I will expect those more knowledgeable will chime in with either criticisms or (hopefully) clarifications. So please do. (I'm also aware that if you've never seen the film you may not be able to picture the kind of extreme symptoms and behavior I'm referring to.)

If anything, though, I'm suggesting that rigged narratives like GG The Musical--as well intentioned and "sympathetic" as they are--are part of the problem, too. It does a disservice to the truly ill to suggest that the onset of such a debilitating mental state is anything like the conscious "motivations" of a fictional character's rational subjectivity. Nor is it fair to suggest--as is done here--that Little Edie's fate is the consequence of bad parenting or (in this case) grandparenting and jerk boyfriends. (As we all know by now, never date a Kennedy.)

Musicals are very good at--in fact thrive on--endowing characters with rich subjectivity, beautiful inner lives that sing to us in solo spotlights of their innermost desires and torments ("Rose's Turn", Billy Bigelow's "Soliloquy"). The key to these is the character's self-awareness--a concept much more complicated in regard to extreme mental conditions. And so writing an "11 o'clock number" for a deranged protagonist is no easy task, nor necessarily advisable.

The grown-up Little Edie has a classic 11 o'clock-er, "Around the World," in which the writers here really try to get at the "real" Edie, not the facade she puts up in the film. But notice how that implies a straightforward surface/depth mentality in a condition that is probably much more fluid. In other words, inside that crazy woman is a normal person like you or me. Again, I know this sounds unsympathetic, but I think mental illness is best respected by recognizing the extreme cases as different. (If not, then we in fact end up blaming the ill for behavior they can't control, which is definitely not helpful.)

Then again--audiences are not supposed to be able to feel for a character that is profoundly different from them, are they? We have to see Edie's real self is just like ours in the end in order to "relate," "identify," "empathize" and all those other responses drama is supposed to elicit like Pavlov's dog. I think it's possible to depict mental illness on stage in a compelling way, but this toolkit of audience-identification would have to be challenged. (See C. Churchill's The Skriker, for instance.)

Seems unfair to spend all this space attacking the musical Grey Gardens for what it isn't? For turning it into a misguided tract on our treatment of the mentally ill, against the artists' wishes to morph it instead into a Chekhovian/Williamsesque bittersweet troubled-woman character portrait? Maybe. But someone has to point out, I think, the enormous difference between watching that film on the one hand, and, on the other, feeling compelled to applaud and "bravo" a star Christine Ebersole at her curtain call when she safely steps out of Edie's madness, as any other "role." Again, no one's fault. (As I'll get to, Ebersole's magnificent.) But it's the nature of the beast--theatre as entertainment, that is.

(In reference to more "realistic" and anti-sentimental stage portrayals of such heroines, by the way, I point to the best Blanche Dubois I ever saw--Liz Marvel's desperate strung-out junkie in Ivo Van Hove's radical rethinking of the play.)

Ok, so what's good about Grey Gardens The Musical? Yes, there's Ebersole. Her performance as the mother, Edith, in Act One actually contains more social commentary than anything explicit in the show. She brings to the part the levels of both a Madame Renevskaya and a Philip Barry socialite--in short women completely dependent upon their privilege--namely their father's property and the husband's wallet. Also, in the rendering of Edith as an interminable amateur singer at parties, Ebersole knows how to sing badly well, and not turn Edith's numbers in Act One into showy vehicles for herself, but rather reflections of the character.

Ebersole's Little Edie in Act II, though, is the reason everyone comes to see this show. Having said all I have about the show's simplification of madness, her performance certainly honors the real woman by replicating her in every degree. That she manages to so entertain us with Edie's rants is not a disservice, since the real Edie is awfully engaging on film, too. In fact, in Ebersole's hands, the uncharming side of the logorrhea--the way the trajectory of her speech suddenly takes you on a sharp left turn from witty to bizarre--is quite evident. This is probably helped by the inclusion of much of the original "dialogue" (I should say transcript) from the film. In fact the problems of this show in Act II surface whenever you sense we are leaving the film's "text" behind for the imagined (i.e. normalized) dialogue of the librettist and lyricist. The seams are there for those listening closely.

I mentioned the fine Erin Davie already. Likewise, the other Big Edie, Mary Louise Wilson, should not be relegated to the shadow of Ms Ebersole either. Wilson's performance as the mostly-bedridden mother of Act II, is stirringly brave. Baring her own age honestly in stripping down to her nightie, the occasional vacant gazes of her character's loneliness are not something you're allowed to see usually in a Broadway musical.

Purely artistically (if I can say such a thing) the show is a triumph of the old ideal of the "integrated musical" the subordination of song to character. The score by Scott Frank (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) swerves in and out of a variety of idioms to match what's going on in Doug Wright's book. Wright's main task in the show seems to make a sensible balance between the two Acts, which are different in many, many ways. Act I is actually the "add-on" in the piece, since it's not directly from the film but reconstructed from the real life family history of the Bouvier-Beales (some of which is recounted in the film). So the approach seems to have been to concoct an archetypally 20s-40s dramatic world. The score gives us plenty of pastiche-Gershwin and Porter which is appropriate and interesting in a Sondheimian way. (I liked how some of the songs Edith prefers are outright pre-p.c. ditties of negroes and Indians. Unfortunately the b'way style staging of Michael Greif and choreographer Jeff Calhoun still tries to charm us with at least the Indian song. Again--the traps of total empathy.)

The huge contrast between the two acts is part of what's intriguing but also iffy about the whole show. They're almost stylistically incompatible. They certainly could each exist separately as one-acts. (The brief inclusion and "ghosting" of some 1941 characters in Act II is a cool gesture, but incomplete.) Theatrically, the shift in worlds, and of the set of the Grey Gardens manion itself, is a nice stunt, a coup de theatre. And Greif deserves credit ultimately for giving some kind of shape to all these disparate elements in the end.

Ultimately, though, without Ebersole this would be a something of a curiosity. To see someone of her charisma, intelligence, and fearlessness take on a role (scratch that, two roles) like this is to realize what star power is all about in the theatre. In fact, here's a definition of a "star" that came to me as I watched her: a star is that performer who seems to have a circus going on inside them, but shows us that with hardly any effort at all.

So Grey Gardens fails at its higher aspirations of giving meaning to two sadly drifting lives once captured in a film, but succeeds in turning serious, adult, complex material into an entertaining Broadway event. Which is what the theatre rewards most of all.


Gil said...

Well written. I had a lot of trouble putting my finger on exactly where GG failed as a musical.

Tom said...

I must disagree. I just don't see mental illness in the Beales. I see eccentricity, and a love to perform, which is what they both wanted to do with their lives, and what neither of them actually ended up doing. So they performed for the Maysles' cameras.

Unknown said...

Bravo. I haven't seen it put so well exactly why it didn't resonate with me as much as it seems to with everyone else. Another aspect is the mother-daughter dynamic, which I found myself unable to relate to, but which really seemed to speak to my girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

That's preposterous. If people like you dictated what should and shouldn't be written or created in the first place, we wouldn't have any art whatsoever!

Playgoer said...

As a postscript, here's a blurb I just ran across at from the official GG press release:

"Not since Mama Rose and Gypsy has there been a mother/daughter act as hilarious, as heartbreaking and as utterly unforgettable as Edith and Edie Beale — Jackie Kennedy's most outrageous relatives — in Broadway's acclaimed musical smash Grey Gardens. From the grandeur of an East Hampton high society party in 1941 to the sensational tabloid headlines that rocked the Kennedy clan in 1973, Grey Gardens is scandalously entertaining."

Naturally, the job of such a release is to sell the show Broadway-style. But just note what that does to the material (and the real life people) at the core of the piece.

Anonymous said...

you forgot to add one very important point: the music in grey gardens blows.