Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Grey Gardens, which has been extended again at Playwrights Horizons, may not be the best musical you'll see this year, but it contains what may well be the best musical theater performance(s) you'll see in a decade. We're talking about Christine Ebersole in her dual roles as Edith Bouvier Beale in Act I (set in 1941) and as her daughter, "Little" Edie Beale, in Act II (set in 1973).

The tone of the show keeps it from being a fireworks display. What Ebersole accomplishes is more akin to the subtle nuances of fall colors, with each shade of red, yellow, and brown blending into the next. Only when you stand away from the trees and look at the forest can you see how resplendently brilliant it is. And there is a truly transcendent moment at the end of the second act, when Edie stands poised to leave Grey Gardens, the rundown East Hampton mansion where she resides with her equally eccentric mother (now played by Mary Louise Wilson).

Of course, it takes masterful writing to give any performer -- even one as great as Ebersole -- the role(s) of a lifetime. Doug Wright's book binds mother and daughter together in a poignantly nutty descent. As for the score, by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the songs in the first act are mostly lightweight musical theater pastiche, while the second act numbers are mostly eccentric novelty numbers (with the exception of the heartbreaking "Another Winter in a Summer Town").

The saying goes that the rich are eccentric and the poor are crazy. Grey Gardens is artistically rich enough to be an eccentric success, but the main reason to see it is that you'd be crazy to miss Christine Ebersole -- and all the poorer if you do.

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Chris Chalk and Stephen Lang in Defiance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Chris Chalk and Stephen Lang in Defiance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
No Doubt About Defiance

Another stunning Off-Broadway performance is that of Stephen Lang as Lt. Col. Morgan Littlefield in John Patrick Shanley's Defiance at Manhattan Theatre Club. Playing a man who yearns for greatness, Lang performs the seemingly impossible task of convincing us that Littlefield has many heroic qualities while also showing us his feet of clay. Brash and bold but bedeviled by his own inner lack of conviction, he's a rudderless leader.

But Littlefield's tragedy is only a smart part of this carefully wrought morality play. With Defiance, a stunning follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Doubt, Shanley has stepped into Arthur Miller's shoes as a playwright who takes on big social and moral issues. And, like Miller, he writes great roles for actors; just ask Lang and his co-stars, Margaret Colin and Chris Chalk.

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Beth Malone and Jarrod Emick  in Ring of Fire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Beth Malone and Jarrod Emick
in Ring of Fire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Cashing Out

With the new Johnny Cash revue Ring of Fire, a little piece of Branson, Missouri has been transported to the theater district. Our bet is that the show will either be a big hit with tourists or will close quickly; most New Yorkers are going to stay away in droves. This is not because they don't like country music or Johnny Cash, but because the second act climaxes with a slew of songs about Jesus.

Otherwise, the show is generally entertaining. The cast of 14 is energetic and talented; everyone in the cast sings and plays at least one instrument. Still, many people may leave disappointed at not hearing enough familiar tunes. After all, other than "Ring of Fire," "Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "A Boy Named Sue," how many Johnny Cash songs do you know? (Two numbers in the show, "If I Were a Carpenter," and "Sunday Morning Coming Down," were recorded by Cash but are more strongly associated with other artists.)

The "jukebox musical" Jersey Boys is a big hit largely because every baby boomer who ever owned a transistor radio remembers and loves the old Four Seasons songs. In contrast, Ring of Fire brings us lots of obscure items, and only a handful of them are really any good.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]