Leslie Castay is 'Little' Edie Beale , left, to Janet Shea's Edith Bouvier Beale in 'Grey Gardens' onstage now at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre.
Much like the characters (real life and semi-fictionalized) that the musical presents, “Grey Gardens” is an exercise in paradoxes.
There is an underlying sense of tragedy in this dysfunctional family tale about two eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and yet the audience laughs out loud through much of the play. It has all the elements of a camp classic, but also a genuine sympathetic heart. As a musical, it has a dense, off-putting score that nevertheless sticks in your head as you leave the theater.
By all standard accounts, “Grey Gardens” should not work. And yet, the current production at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, is one of the most intriguing and appealing shows of the season. It also features performances by Leslie Castay and Janet Shea that will rank among the finest performances of this or any season.
Receiving its regional premiere, in a joint production between Le Petit and Southern Repertory Theatre, “Grey Gardens” is playwright Doug Wright’s adaptation of the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter “Little Edie,” a quirky pair of New York socialites, living out their lives as recluses in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion with scores of cats and raccoons. Their story first came to national attention in the 1970s, and a documentary about the pair (also named “Grey Gardens”) became a camp cult classic.
Wright, with songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, reclaims the story to examine the strange dynamics of their mother-daughter relationship, as well as their descent from New England aristocracy (seen at the height of their glamour in the 1940s in the first act) into poverty and madness (living in squalor in the second act’s 1970s).
Giving the current production its significant appeal, director Aimee Hayes leaves the surreal sheen of these characters’ lives in place, while also allowing the audience to see beyond the eccentricities and quirks to feel a genuine connection with both Edies. Hayes finds a fluid balance that never lets the production sink into self-parody.
In what is surely now one of the grandest tour-de-force roles in contemporary American theater, Leslie Castay plays both Big Edie in Act I and then transforms into the now middle-aged Little Edie in the second act. Watching a pro like Castay alone is worth the price of admission. She captures the vivid, driving and ruthlessly bubbly character of Big Edie with charm and panache. Even though it knows better, the audience is pulled into Edie’s web. Castay’s beautiful singing voice also makes Big Edie believable as a legitimate singer, not merely the cocktail party bore commandeering the piano.
In the second act, she transforms into Little Edie, introducing a degree of manic subversion to the mother-daughter relationship. There’s no doubt that Little Edie is Big Edie’s daughter – elements of Castay’s characterization purposely carry over the intermission – but the first half of the show sets the foundation for both their sad state of affairs and an ultimate clash between mother and daughter.
The marvelous Janet Shea, portraying the now elderly and frail Big Edie in prologue and the second act, offers the flip side of Castay’s portrayal of the character. Though more understated now, there is still a clear fire and demanding control that Shea brings to Big Edie. Now physically more dependent on her daughter, Shea exquisitely balances Edie’s fierce manipulations with the sense of pity she elicits from the audience.
To watch these two superbly gifted actresses working together – sharing a character – is to see the finest star turn theater-goers are likely to see this season.
The strong supporting cast adds both color and veracity to the story – it’s not surprising that the people surrounding the Beales were just as odd. Kristen Witterschein is lovely as the younger Little Edie, singing with a pretty voice and subtly revealing the hints of madness to come. Vatican Lokey gives George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s musical accompanist and hanger-on, an appropriately foppish suavity. Kris Shaw oozes upper-crust old money as Major Bouvier. His number, “Marry Well” (sung to the young Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier), reveals much about the patrician attitudes that ultimately contribute to the fall of the Beales.
Ron Flagge plays two generations of butlers with a wiley wisdom. Alex Martinez-Wallace is the hunky, lunky Joseph Kennedy Jr., wooing Little Edie in Act I, and the stoner Jerry, the calculating caretaker/friend of the women in their decline. Elizabeth Donner and Shane Fitzpatrick (and Annie Taffaro in some performances) are cute as the girls who would grow up to be Jackie O and Princess Lee.
Alan Payne conducts the pit orchestra through the perplexing score eliciting many of its unexpected charms.
Special note must be made of Geoffrey Hall’s fully realized set – a swanky, elegant ballroom that transforms into a rank, cluttered hovel. It is lit with evocative mystery by Scott Stewart. Cecile Covert’s costumes are top drawer, especially matching the fashionista sensibility that Little Edie evoked long before that term came into vogue.
This production is a fine example of the excellence that can happen on New Orleans stages when local companies collaborate to bring their talents and particular resources together. It is fitting that “Grey Gardens” marks the culmination of a season in which both Le Petit and Southern Rep have consistently proven to be among the crown jewels of New Orleans theater.
Theodore P. Mahne is a contributing writer for The Times-Picayune.
What: The regional premiere of the Tony Award-nominated musical by Doug Wright, with music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, telling the story of Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” and their fall from East Hampton aristocracy to a solitary life in a decrepit mansion.
Where: Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, 616 St. Peter St., 522.2081.
When: Performances at 8 Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 Sundays, through May 23.
Tickets: $29-$45, $25 for students, military and theater professionals.