Grey Gardens – Mother May I



Moms tend to get a bad rap.  From Medea to Joan Crawford, fiction, reality and the strange intersection thereof are rife with tales of super shitty mothers.  But there is no mommy and me story that is more fucking delicious than that of Grey Gardens.  Gardens is a fictionalized, campy, intricate, musical look at the (real) Bouvier-Beale family and their twenty-eight room East Hampton mansion (made famous of course, by the 1975 documentary film of the same name by Albert and David Maysles).  Mama Big Edie (Zoe Kanter/Danielle Robinette) and Baby Girl Little Edie (Christine Demuth) begin as socialites, WASPy, lockjawed American royalty; they are women who treat an engagement to a Kennedy as just another excuse for a garden party.

But nothing lasts, of course, especially after Labor Day.  When Big Edie sends her daughter’s suitor packing, Little Edie can’t forgive her and leaves for New York.  This ends Act I and the first room of Ryan Haase’s elaborate staging (more on this in a sec).  In Act II, Little Edie has come back home to roost.  She lives with her desolate, bed-ridden mother in a once-grand-and-now-decrepit home, falling into disrepair, overrun with cats, raccoons, and ghosts.  The tragedy here is manifest, sure, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic.  Big and Little bleat and argue in a unique, ultra-co-dependent way, but it feels like screams into a void.  Directors Danielle Robinette and Ryan Haase deliberately leave us with The Big Question:  Did Big Edie sabotage Little Edie’s happiness due to selfishness and jealousy or was she protecting her only daughter from a life of hapless domestic bliss?  Did Big, in a way, save Little from herself?

Danielle Robinette (Big Edie) is delightful and funny to watch, particularly her song “Jimmy Likes My Corn”, which is worth the price of admission, packed as it is with so many sexual innuendos you may choke on your cocktail.  Zoe Kanter gives a fine, nuanced, grand performance, and Adrienne Gieszl thoughtfully breaks the fourth wall for audience inclusion, lighting the overheads to bring us fully into to Little Edie’s world.  The cherry on the sundae is the voices.  Kanter and Demuth, especially, can really fucking belt it out.  Their singing was flawless.

All right, back to those sets, which are the largest characters in the play.  Act I sallies forth in a beautiful environment of piano, liquor and mantle.  Lovely, but in a packed, deep room, the problem is sight lines.  I was in the last row, and it was almost impossible to see all the action.  During several numbers where actors sat down, I could only hear voices over a house of heads.  Not to worry, though, because Act II (when both the house and collective mental state of the gals is in the last stages) takes place somewhere completely different.  An announcement signifies that “next door is ready” and we are led outside and into another, oh-so-much creepier, room, amazingly inhabited by puppet cats (design by Michael Paradiso) of every persuasion (!- TBO).  This device is alarmingly effective and incredibly intriguing.  The seating in here is much better, too, long rows with good views.  A few patrons were tardy to the party, and had to wait until an actor escorted them across the stage to the second row, but eh, so be it.  Also!  During the fifteen minute intermission I discovered a full pit band stashed behind the partition over my shoulder.  The music was superb, but I thought it was a recording.  It seems almost criminal to hide those hard working folks!

BIG shout-outs to Kit Crescenzo and Nick Staigerwald on the costumes, which are historically accurate with clever nods to the source material.  The zany outfits of Little Edie as she sinks further and further into her disjointed mind are mesmerizing. 

BOTTOM LINE:  Will we ever get enough of Grey Gardens?  The answer is, and shall always be, a resounding no.  This odd, off-beat story of two women drawn together and repelled, like some sort of alternative, Hampton-based gravitational system, will never cease to fascinate.  The performances are solid, the songs are amazing, the band is on point.  Most interesting though, is an innovative take on the interaction between the audience and set that feels truly fresh, especially on the small stage.  Just get there early to get good seats.


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