Aeschylus had the House of Atreus; Shakespeare had the Royal families of England. If there’s any candidate for modern high tragedy—complete with Aristotle-sanctioned song and dance—its Grey Gardens the Miusical. Taken from the true story of the rich and powerful Bouvier Beales, and how a mother and daughter of that august clan came to live reclusively in the titular rotten, cat-infested mansion in East Hampton, the tale only takes on higher mythic status from it’s association with the Kennedy family (young Edie’s supposed engagement to a Kennedy scion is fictionalized in the musical; young Jackie makes a cameo appearance). It’s an amazing musical: a saga of roadkill on the highway to American empire and collateral damage in the war of the sexes that devolves into a slow-motion car wreck. And who in Milwaukee would have the nerve to bring this show to the stage but our resident truth-teller, Dale Gutzman. And who else would have the theatrical chops to pull it off with such a small budget and cast?
Avoiding both cheap camp and shadenfreude-tempting realism, Gutzman raises his bigger-than-life characters to the realm of archetypes; his little music-box theater is a magician’s cabinet, opening and folding, lights rising and falling in rhythmic counterpoint with the score to create a cinema of the stage. The play opens with the audio equivalent of the smell of cat urine: silence punctuated by feline yowling. We briefly glimpse Marilyn White as “Big Edie” lame, nearly blind, and imperious. Time shifts to reveal Niffer Clarke as the same Edie 30 years earlier, the coddled wife of a Wall Street banker. The first act shows her narcissistically sabotaging her daughter’s marriage (because her husband had divorced her and she feared being alone). The music in this act is a tour-de-force; period melodies and complex, witty lyrics that interrupt and comment on themselves like the brilliant, socially hyper-conscious families they depict. Whether the story is strictly true (you can read lots about it online here and here) is less important than the myth being finely detailed: the associated costs of being part of the American aristocracy. These were the kind of men (and they were men; women were their accessories) who led the country into the Cold War, planned multiple CIA assassinations, plots, and manipulation. What we see vividly is the social pressure on Big Edie and her daughter to live up to the rigid standards of their class.
Niffer Clake plays “Little Edie” all grown up in the second act, so it’s her show—and she runs with it. She nails the role of the domineering, “artistic” rich woman, self-centered enough to plan on singing nine songs at her own daughter’s wedding (including a cringeingly racist “Oriental” number that has to be seen to be seen to be believed, though it depicts the WASP mentality to a T.) She’s abetted in her artistic pretensions by her ever-present parasite, the musician George Gould Strong (who, played by the luminous Jack Forbes Wilson, provides virtuosic piano accompaniment for the entire show). As her understandably frustrated daughter, Alexandra Bonesho swings credibly between romantic idealism and near-pathological rage; Bonesho gives the character a harsh edge that foreshadows Clarke’s later interpretation of a deeply damaged human being.
The harrowing second act shows Grey Gardens in the trough of entropy, and we meet the grown-up daughter, outrageously daft, dressing in bizarre outfits improvised out of drapes, with an ever-present headscarf (some attribute her baldness to disease; one story has her burning her hair off in a histrionic episode). The lyrics and dialog of this act is almost entirely taken verbatim from the Maysles documentary of the same name; hence the focus is on the pair’s relationship, which “dysfunctional” barely covers; Big Edie screams for her champagne cocktail; Little Edie performs show tunes for herself, passive-aggressively substitutes cat food for her mother’s paté; the two have several screaming episodes which become a kind of musique brut all it’s own. Under Gutzman’s direction their faces sometimes take on almost Kabuki-mask qualities: expressing essences rather than particular people
It would be hard to imagine this not being enervating, but Wright and Korie keep mixing it up with clever devices, like having the chorus assume the role of the house’s cats, or bringing in a rousing revival number courtesy of Norman Vincent Peale. It can still be a bit draining, especially if your tolerance for bittersweet romantic ballads is limited. But given the premise, it could be nothing else; it’s like Chekhov characters in a musical version of Beckett’s Endgame. The themes of the show are dazzlingly rich; real life doesn’t condense into neat thesis statements. There are ideas about privilege, of course; betrayal, madness, dispossession, the lure of the creative life, the fear of abandonment, and of course, the deep bond between mother and daughter.
In the USA, we are judged (and judge ourselves) greatly by the outward signs of wealth: cars, houses, clothes. Our fear and pity for the women of Grey Gardens come from their utter abandonment of those signs. And if they can fall so low—why not us? Few people realize their youthful fantasies; even the happiest among us fall to old age and death. All is futile, says the prophet. Nice thoughts to coddle over an autumn night. But to see a human being stripped of all illusions to their heart of hearts, staring down the cruel mysterious universe--that's why we go to tragedy.
Grey Gardens, The Musical
book by Doug Wright, music by Sean Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Dale Gutzman
Off the Wall Theater
As of this date, the show is completely sold out