Rachel York and Betty Buckley in Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Wilson, "Grey Gardens" plays at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
Rachel York and Betty Buckley in Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Wilson, at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Grey Gardens, based on the 1975 cult classic documentary, is a gem of a one-act musical. Unfortunately, there are two acts. In wanting to flesh out the characters who were captured in the film, book author Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie focus the entire first act on backstory that drags the show down. Although the events in 1941 colored the relationship between mother and daughter Beale, the intriguing characters are their later selves, in 1973, when the once socialite and her playgirl daughter have grayed into delusional, frustrated, older women who both lean on and suck the life out of each other.

Once fabulously wealthy, the Beales entertained US-royalty, such as the Gettys, Rockefellers, and Kennedys. Young Joe Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young) has arrived at Grey Gardens for his engagement party to the vivacious Little Edie Beale (Sarah Hunt). Little Edie sees this powerful marriage as an escape from the prison of the East Hamptons estate and from her overbearing mother Edith (Rachel York). But Edith cannot bare to be alone. Her marriage has already crumbled. Her constant companion is a gay kept man (Brian Batt) and her two sons have long left. She can't bear to lose her daughter, whom she treats as an accessory.

Thirty-two years later, the two women still live at Grey Gardens, but the money has long gone. The house has been condemned for good reason and neighbors have complained about the overwhelming stench of the many cats and other beasts sharing the house with Edith (now played by Betty Buckley) and Little Edie (now played by Rachel York). They have become recluses, relics of a time long gone. And they would have faded away had Edith's niece not been former first lady and ultimate socialite, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The press soon turns the lives of "Big" and "Little" Edie into a circus until two documentarians decide to strip away the gossip and reveal the truth of these two sad women.

Worn down and dotty, the older Edith toys with her daughter a cat with string. She would be crippled without her daughter's support. Little Edie, meanwhile, almost married a Kennedy and knows her mother chased him and all her other suitors away. She despises her mother but knows she is the only life support for the old woman.

With such a rich second act, it's a shame that we have to wade through a far less exciting first. What could have been related in a 20-minute flashback becomes an overlong prologue to the more interesting people that audiences would rather see. The machinations in the 1941 sequence of Act 1 is a familiar drawing room drama, but anyone who is not familiar with the documentary or the HBO film (starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange) might be confused about who the characters are and why the musical is focusing on them.

To be fair, the songs are clever, some with complex melodies that mimic Sondheim's style. At times, though, the lyrics get lost. Particularly in the first act, many songs do not further the story and seem pointless in the context of a book show. Nevertheless, director Michael Wilson and his strong cast try to make both acts relevant. York and Buckley play off each other beautifully. Each seems to have been at the other throat all their lives, and both find a rhythm in their speech that effectively reflects years of talking over each other.

Little Edie has a distinct speech pattern that both York and, as the younger version, Hunt, capture perfectly. Neither actress uses the cadence as a crutch or a weapon to mock the character. They both find humanity in this quirky, tragic woman. Buckley shows boisterousness within a frail exterior. Though she is recognized as one of Broadway's most powerful belters, Buckley sings like the weakened Edith would at age 77 and ignores her ego, allowing her voice to crack and crumble inside the song. In the 1941 scene, both York and Hunt spar off each other with macabre glee. They know they're destroying each other, but they can't help it. Josh Young is strapping as the pre-presidential puppet son of Joe Kennedy, who is looking for an arm-candy bride, not someone with spunk, like Edie. As the Beales' simple-souled neighbor Jerry, Young demonstrates kindness and patience.

Jeff Cowie's set strikingly represents the glorious manse that hosts the elite on a daily basis, only to convert it during intermission into a house of horrors with grime, broken-down staircases, clutter, and cats. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are posh in Act 1, and perfectly awkward in the 1973 scenes, capturing Edie's inane style of head wraps, pinned-fabric skirts, and tacky scarfs.

It's no surprise that the Beales' story has spurred a documentary, musical, and TV movie. They are fascinating. One can find the makings of a Tennessee Williams play among the ruins, à la Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois. These are epic characters even though their lives seems so small. The creators should have trusted their source and focused purely on the filmed years.