ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $55–$77. Runs Tues.–Sun. Ends June 2.
Blame it on The Osbournes. Maybe it was inevitable that America’s fixation on the ugly underbelly of fame would lead to a Broadway musical. Grey Gardens is based on the eponymous 1975 documentary about Jackie O’s relatives, who then lived in a decrepit Long Island mansion of the same name. Bravo cable addicts, rejoice! Now everyone who revels in the antics of real housewives, the Kardashians, or what washes up on the Jersey shore can see what an upper-crust train wreck looks like, live onstage.
Unlike The Hills, though, this is not a contemporary tale of parvenus in sudden ascent. Grey Gardens more resembles a slo-mo retrospective of Mount St. Helens’ eruption, with lives and property crusted over after decades of neglect.
To his credit, Doug Wright’s book for the 2006 musical does what the Maysles brothers’ film could not: We get to see firsthand the lofty roost from which the Beale/Bouviers fell to earth. In the first act, Wright transports viewers from the squalid cat preserve inhabited by “Little Edie” and her mother Edith Beale (whose mother was a Bouvier, just like Jackie) back to the moment of no return, when the duo sealed their pact of mutual loathing and codependency.
It’s 1941, and Little Edie (Jessica Skerritt) is ready to break free from her eccentric and domineering mother. She’s set her sights on Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Matt Owen), the strapping Irish Catholic youth being groomed by his father for the presidency. But Big Edie (Patti Cohenour) won’t permit it. She’s got to either upstage or undo the nuptials, and she succeeds in doing both, leaving her daughter so distraught that she leaves home in hopes of a New York acting career.
By the second act, set in 1973, Little Edie (played in middle age by Cohenour) has returned to the mansion, where she, her mother, and their 52 rooms are all the worse for wear. Has Little Edie been a recluse for so long that she’s just eccentric beyond the telling, or has she lost her mind entirely? Big Edie (now played by Suzy Hunt), is no better, living off canned soup and memories of getting everything she wanted until there was nothing left.
The ladies’ path to ruin is strewn with Kennedys and Bouviers, and Wright’s text provides interminable examples of the behavior that drove Mr. Beale from Grey Gardens. The music—score by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie—is full of haunting contrasts between the frivolous then and the fallen now. It’s Sondheimesque in the best way, more intent on creating moods than hummable hits.
Cohenour, Hunt, Skerritt, and Owen all shine in their roles, and the supporting cast is never less than stalwart. (This is a mostly native production, a collaboration between ACT and the Fifth Avenue Theatre.) Director Kurt Beattie wrings what compassion he can for these two characters, but the Beales are merely porcelain figurines broken by their fall from Camelot. Identify with them and you’re bereft; decline and you’re asleep. One final spoiler alert: Grey Gardens also clocks in at close to three hours. Like the Beales themselves, it drags on and on, long after all life is wrung from it.