At the start of Grey Gardens, we're in Noel Coward territory. The setting is an opulent East Hampton mansion, and everyone is elegant, well-spoken, witty and beautifully dressed. This is the home of Edith Bouvier Beale, her ever-absent husband and her father, J.V. "Major" Bouvier, whose wealth keeps the family in dancing shoes. A party is being planned celebrating the engagement of Edith's daughter, "Little" Edie, but Mama, a frustrated performer kept from her vocation by her bullying dad, is determined to sing at least nine numbers for the guests, and her exhibitionism threatens to scuttle her daughter's big event. Also on hand is George Gould Strong, a gay musician kept around by Edith as accompanist and a sort of beloved pet. Despite some unsettling currents, the defining tone is jolly, and most of the music bouncy and appealing. Little Edie and her very ambitious fiancé exult in song about how they're "Going Places"; the Major sings a rollicking exhortation to her and two visiting cousins to "Marry Well"; and, despite the tension simmering between them, Edith and Edie strut their stuff enticingly to "Two Peas in a Pod."
Of course, the rich and mighty are going to fall. We know this from the prologue, which shows Edith and Edie living in squalor in the now-dilapidated mansion — fleas, dirt, dozens of cats, no electricity or running water, an affront to neighbors and the focus of unwanted attention from the health department. We also know that they are no ordinary rich eccentrics, but Jackie O's aunt and cousin, subjects of a 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers, which was followed by a television version and a film. Little Edie's first-act engagement is to Joe Patrick Kennedy, Jack's brother, who died in the war — although this part of the plot is an invention by the musical's creators, writer Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel, based on a fantasizing boast of the real Little Edie's. The two children who so shyly and sweetly round out the big first-act numbers are Edith's nieces: Jackie and the sister who will become Princess Lee Radziwill.
This adds a yummy layer of titillation and schadenfreude. America is fascinated with royalty, and the Kennedys are as close as we ever came. And isn't there always at least one crazy person in the palace (not to mention some very strange chins and noses)? Plus, for those of us who will never attain them, it's so comforting to think that great wealth and privilege offer no protection from dysfunction and madness — that they in fact bring their own problems as social convention destroys spontaneity and status-obsessed men crush the spirits of vivacious wives and daughters.
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Still, the Beale women were more interesting in real life than the average subject of Hoarders. They were intelligent and creative, and the twisted dynamic between mother and daughter had its own juicy specificity. But Grey Gardens is a pretty standard musical that doesn't trade much in psychological depth; many of the best lines come directly from the documentary. The first act is entertaining but a little dated. The second — by which time Edith has turned into a doddering, white-haired virago and her daughter a middle-aged woman, dressed in peculiar, self-created outfits, paranoid, filled with rage and unable to escape her mother's domination — doesn't give a lot of insight. The script gets shrill, and we find ourselves in a world where Miss Havisham and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane have collided.
The evening is buoyed by the beauty of Megan Van de Hey's singing and the power of her presence as Edith in the first act and middle-aged Edie in the second. Deborah Persoff, who plays the aged Edith in the second act, is a little over the top, though she does bring warm tones and real emotion to "Jerry Likes My Corn" as she lavishes on this visiting boy the tenderness she's unable to give her daughter. As teenage Little Edie, Maggie Sczekan is a charmer with a lovely voice, though she doesn't communicate the seeds of madness we know are within. All the supporting roles are deftly done, and James O'Hagan Murphy does a nice double turn as Joe Kennedy and Jerry. The intimacy of Vintage Theatre's playing space — where you're only a few feet from the actors and can actually smell the cat food from the dozens of open cans on stage — brings home this ambitious, high-octane crowd-pleaser.