Weirder People's Houses

Grey Gardens proves that bad housekeeping can make good theater

We think of classic drama as an open-air event, taking place on the steps of the palace, the street, the battlefield. Modern drama, in contrast, happens in the house. Yet Henrik Ibsen, who built the modern house onstage definitively in the late 19th century (and made one of his most autobiographical heroes, Master Builder Solness, a famous architect), also sensed the truth: Modern drama's house always has something wrong about it. The counter-movement led by Ibsen's younger rival, Strindberg, saw it as a place to be dismantled, transcended, or violently exploded, like the castle out of which a giant flower bursts at the end of A Dream Play. Ibsen's own protagonists tend to view it as a trap from which they must either escape, like Nora Helmer and John Gabriel Borkman, or be forced to destroy themselves, like Johannes Rosmer and Hedda Gabler. Home, in the modern theater, is where everything hellish happens.

Grey Gardens, by this light, must be the definitive modernist musical: It's the only one I can think of in which the house is the title character. Allen Moyer's scenery may shift, as sets do in the traditionally open form of the musical, but the action is confined to the house and grounds. And "confined" is indeed the operative word, since the show's arc describes the growing confinement of its two increasingly eccentric heroines, the socialite Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, nicknamed "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," who have served as twin icons of the squalid absurdity to which human beings can be reduced, ever since their immortalization on film in the Maysles brothers' 1975 documentary on which the musical is based. When Grey Gardens opened Off-Broadway last spring, the outrageousness of making figures from a documentary film sing and dance was part of its exhilaration, a liberating shock. Now that the initial shock is past, the idea seems no odder than musicalizing historical characters from the pre-cinematic era—Grieg, Thomas Jefferson, Charlemagne. The Beale women and their crumbling, cat-infested house are part of history. With its newly tightened, enriched dramatic focus, the show now makes clear that they're as amenable to artistic treatment as any other icon from the past. Moving nonstop now, with its digressions cleared away, Grey Gardens feels like a Broadway musical, not like a commentary on a set of cinematic facts—a modernist musical that belongs on the street where modern playwrights built all those unhappy houses with inexplicably open fourth walls.

With the help of some subtle additions, Grey Gardens has also made its strategy clearer. The first act, which takes place in 1941, with the heroines still young and the house still spotlessly up-to-date, is now very plainly not the cause of Act Two's hermetic horrors, but an instance of what will lead to them; its underlying causes already visible. Big Edie is not merely a frustrated artist whose competitive ego drives her daughter to distraction, but a woman as needy, and as protective, as she is resentful of Little Edie's younger and prettier presence. Little Edie—a role much improved by rewriting and recasting—is a girl permanently scarred by her parents' estrangement, her inability to identify fully with either well on its way to becoming the full-blown mental instability of her later years. Marrying the suitor whom we see getting cold feet, Joe Kennedy Jr., or anyone else, would clearly be no solution. The improved Grey Gardens is rather like Waiting for Godot: Act One is just like Act Two, except that everything is different. Little Edie goes from being "the girl who has everything but time," as one of the new songs calls her, to being an overgrown but not grown-up girl who, like Beckett's tramps, has nothing but time on her hands. Continually bickering and betraying each other, hating the house's increasing rot as they increasingly love it for its memories, abandoned by everyone but constantly visited by inexplicable presences from the outside world who may or may not offer salvation, Big Edie and Little Edie are an impregnably strong and hopelessly ineffectual team.

Mirror mirror: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie in Grey Gardens
photo: Joan Marcus
Mirror mirror: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie in Grey Gardens

Details

Grey Gardens
by Doug Wright, Michael Korie, and Scott Frankel
Walter Kerr Theatre
218 West 48th Street
212-239-6200

The Clean House
By Sarah Ruhl
Mitzi E.Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
150 West 65th Street
212-239-6200

The Wild Duck
By Henrik Ibsen
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
718-636-4100
(Closed)

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Partly, Grey Gardens fascinates because, like many modernist works, it upholds a tradition while simultaneously trashing it to hell and back, the tradition in this case being that of the old-style Broadway musical, in which writing, production, and performance merge to produce one seamless effect. Scott Frankel's pastiche score, set to cunningly wry lyrics by Michael Korie, both invents and mercilessly parodies a world of ancient Tin Pan Alley tunes; Moyer's set and Peter Kaczorowki's lighting make the house seem at once solid and a gliding, insubstantial vision. Michael Grief's staging, in which 1941's glossy social set transforms into 1973's array of hangers-on and stray cats slyly retaining flickers of 1941 hauteur, is the ultimate enchanting outrage, letting its stunning performers, particularly Mary Louise Wilson, Bob Stillman, and Matt Cavenaugh, shine like antique objects that have magically retained their gilt and luster. And dominating the whole event, like a double-faced caryatid, is Christine Ebersole, as the first act's still-young Big Edie and the second act's tormented Little Edie, an architectural monument of Gothic archness, ornately ludicrous, desperately vulnerable, and astonishingly beautiful.

Where Grey Gardens' imagination thrives on fact, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House offers wall-to-wall factitiousness, taking up what used to be called "the servant problem" in a sappy, meandering, campy-romantic fashion that alternates the dully predictable with the downright embarrassing. Ruhl has a certain novice talent, as a few patches of incisive monologue midway through the draggy two-act piece convey, but our youth-hungry, flesh-eating culture has canonized way too early (New York Times raves, a MacArthur "genius" grant), and she will now be stuck forever with the burden of outrageously unfulfillable expectations. And all because, like an obedient student, she made sure her play conformed to academia's current fashion in aesthetic expectations: non-narrative, anti-psychological, dealing with third-world immigrants but evading all sense of victimhood, reality-based but disrupted by the surreal, and all the other tired devices by which the commissars of dramaturgy now teach budding playwrights to shirk their responsibilities.

A married couple, both workaholic MDs, have a Brazilian maid who hates cleaning. In reality this would lead to simple dismissal, but, no, this maid has to be a metaphysical figure, preoccupied with finding and telling the perfect joke. The wife's unhappily married, childless sister pitches in to clean for the jokesmith. From this unconvincing start, the work dribbles into pointlessness and lame movie-style gags about trying to get a yew tree on a plane. Bill Rauch's production compounds the emptiness by pushing some very good actors—Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh, John Dossett, Concetta Tomei—into an italicized, self-conscious tone, presumably so the funding organizations will know it's a comedy; Vanessa Aspillaga's performance as the maid is all italics. It's hardly her fault, Ruhl having given neither the maid, her situation, nor the house she doesn't clean any reality an audience might care about.

Ibsen's Wild Duck, on view all too briefly at BAM in a production by Norway's National Theatre, might provide Ruhl a useful model for study. Housekeeping is somewhat surreal here too, since the Ekdal family has a fake nature preserve in its back room, and Ibsen's play too shifts its preoccupation from masters to underlings and back. But his skill at weaving issues, images, and realities together was never stronger, and Eirik Stubo's production, stripping away many of the play's 19th-century decorative whorls, laid bare that incisiveness, using a 1950s setting and Danish-moderne furniture to underscore its clarity. (This is surely the only production ever of The Wild Duck in which Hjalmar serenaded his family by playing "Love Me Tender" on the recorder.) Agot Sendstad's Gina was superb, Gard Eidsvold's Hjalmar and Kim Haugen's Relling excellent. BAM, kindly arrange a return visit.

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