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Grey Gardens was the first Broadway musical to be adapted from a documentary, and that documentary was a disquietingly intimate portrait of a mother and daughter on a downward spiral of enabling dependency. The creators of the 2006 musical, which was first staged off-Broadway, tried to open up the story with a flashback first act and by occasionally trooping on the first-act characters to augment what is essentially a two-person musical in the second act. While Christine Ebersole's highly praised performance as the mother in the first act and the daughter in the second gave Grey Gardens some Broadway heft, it's essentially a chamber musical and a bad fit for a large proscenium theater.
But it is very much at home at the Gough Street Playhouse. This is a small venue with audiences seated on three sides of the playing area. Custom Made Theatre's strong production lets you see the musical in a new way â€" the way that the documentary itself put you in the middle of a household of extreme dysfunction. It doesn't quite solve the drawn-out exposition of the first act, but the intimacy helps illuminate the funny-sad second act.
Grey Gardens was a name bestowed without irony a century ago upon the spacious East Hampton summer cottage that became the home for Edith Bouvier Beale and her same-named daughter for 50 years of depreciating circumstances. Big Edie and Little Edie, as they were known, were respectively the aunt and first cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and sister Lee Bouvier Radziwill â€" a connection that helps propel the first act and created the tabloid publicity that brought the documentarians Albert and David Maysles onto the squalid scene in the mid-1970s.
The first act is set in 1941, when both Grey Gardens and the Beales are still clutching at their glory. Librettist Doug Wright has taken factual threads to weave a scenario that hits key points giving some context to the 1973 scenes to come. That's why we have little Jackie and Lee Bouvier scampering about auntie's house for no apparent reason other than to remind us of the Edies' connection to future American royalty.
Little Edie is, in Wright's retelling, all but married off to Joe Kennedy, older brother to JFK, and Big Edie is planning a soiree to announce the nuptials. The bickering between the Edies that becomes explosive in the second act first manifests itself over a seeming trifle: How many songs will Big Edie perform for the guests with her live-in homosexual pianist at the ready? But eventually, the possessive Big Edie spitefully scares off Joe Kennedy by telling him, basically, that her daughter is a slut.
The first-act songs by Scott Frankel and Michel Korie often feel wedged into the sometimes-stilted dialogue. But then, into a situation that seems far less hospitable for musical-theater treatment, the songs become natural extensions of the two Edies in the second act. Little Edie (now 57) grabs at the chance to revive quashed dreams of being a performer.
Heather Orth has the choice role of Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second act, and she moves from flamboyant matron to flamboyant neighborhood eccentric with panache. After intermission Mary Gibboney takes over the role of Big Edie, now 78 and mostly bedridden, and she pulls us into her world of a cantankerous and frightened woman who still knows how to push Little Edie's buttons.
Their only visitor is handyman Jerry â€" both Edies competitively flirt with him â€" and Nathan Brown plays the role with the same simplicity as he does Joe Kennedy in the first act. It is a little hard to believe that the capable Juliana Lustenader's lissome Little Edie of the first act would grow up to be Orth's middle-aged version of the character. Dave Sikula plays Big Edie's father with scowling conviction, and David Aaron Brown accompanies the cast from an onstage piano â€" in the first act in the guise of Big Edie's pet musician.
Director Stuart Bousel has deftly staged the production in the small space, with the two primary roles of the second act eliciting performances with an authenticity appropriate to material derived from a documentary. It's good to have the chance to see Grey Gardens in a home that lets the musical be its odd little self.
Grey Gardens will run at the Gough Street Playhouse through July 5. Tickets are $20-$50. Go to custommade.org.