Well, I did not sit around for the no doubt excruciatingly drawn out season finale of American Idol, especially not after Tuesday night’s less than scintillating showdown. Instead, I snatched up tickets for Grey Gardens, Broadway’s current musical must-see. Relying on the New York City subway system, I very nearly the opening scenes. A signal problem and the uncertainty of its timely solution convinced me to alight on Fifth Avenue and 59th, giving me a mere twelve minutes to make a dash for it—past the throngs of sailors in town for the 20th annual Fleet Week—all the way to the Walter Kerr Theater, not far from which venue former Idol Fantasia Barrino stares at passers-by from a giant display for The Color Purple.
After assuring those uneasy about the implications of the beads of sweat on my shiny forehead, that I had used Dial, I squeezed into my allotted space, fanning myself with the playbill, just as Grey Gardens opened its gates, rusty and unhinged. What awaited me was the perfect antidote to the excesses of late 20th and early 21st-century Broadway, which is alive but far from well with the sound of Andrew Lloyd Webberish bombast, with the flashy, the vapid, and the utterly pointless (Legally Blonde, the musical, anyone?). The melancholy and darkly funny Gardens defies this trend; neither Christine Ebersole nor Mary Louise Wilson enter the stage in a helicopter, belt out generic power ballads, or give big names a bad one.
Now, there is nothing novel about the play, inspired by the lives of the Camelot-and-went-nowhere Bouviers, aunt and niece of Jacqueline Onassis, who became the subject of a 1975 documentary (which, my paper fan informed me, is now being dramatized for the screen). The titular mansion is filled with echoes of past lives, fictional and otherwise, which is not to say that it is Gardens variety.
The intrigues and conspiracies of eccentric old dears has long been the stuff of dark comedy and melodrama: those Ladies in Retirement come to mind (and was heard on the Lux Radio Theatre, as do Arsenic and Old Lace (adapted for radio’s Screen Guild Theater), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and radio dramas assortment of weird “Sisters” (such as Lurene Tuttle and Rosalind Russell in a Suspense thriller bearing that title). In musical terms, Gardens is Rose missing her turn and turning her socialite daughter into a spinster maid. Edith and daughter Edie are two “Peas” gone to pot.
Above all, Gardens is a character study. To say that it is neither “little old lady land” camp nor Miss Havisham Gothic is not to imply that it misses any opportunity to give us the tour of a house build on ambitions shattered into lost chances, a house out touch with the times even at the best of times, from its Republican heyday during the Roosevelt administration to its decline in the ’60s and ’70s. Gardens is also refreshingly post-Postmodern, which is to say that the show is reflective rather than self-reflexive. So, get out there and smell the faded flowers. Just don’t count on the subway to take you there.