Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson inGrey Gardens
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson inGrey Gardens
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Las Vegas bookmakers might give heavy odds against the likelihood of the Maysles Brothers' acclaimed 1975 documentary Grey Gardens being adapted into a viable musical; yet librettist Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie, and composer Scott Frankel have done just that, preparing a delightful one-act tuner that celebrates eccentricity. The only problem is that it's part of a far less successful two-act musical, also titled Grey Gardens.

With admirable bravado, the trio trot out 81-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale (Mary Louise Wilson) and "Little" Edie Beale (Christine Ebersole). These down-at-the-heels relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis are depicted as a bickering mother-daughter team who sing through their demented, co-dependent relationship in the ruined East Hampton house (keenly designed by Allen Moyer) that real-life public health officials got so riled up about in 1973. That summer, 58-year-old "Little Edie" -- flaunting her weird fashion sense, which usually includes tight hoods to hide hair that she says isn't there -- contemplates leaving the flea-ridden abode to pursue a career as a singer-dancer in New York City. Upstairs, "Big Edie" lies against a grimy pillow, heating soup and demanding attention. The two, who sleep side by side in ratty single beds, test each other's endurance in a love-hate relationship. Many mother and daughters will recognize this as the sort of contest that normally comes to an end when the younger woman's early adolescence has passed.

The women's only companions are a gardener called Brooks (Michael Potts) and local handyman Jerry (Matt Cavenaugh), who wears flea-collars around his ankles for good reason. Meanwhile, the sadly comic ladies chant their feelings in woozy threnodies with oddball titles like "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," "The Cake I Had," "Jerry Likes My Corn," and "Around the World." For sheer silly bravura, these ditties belong in the trove of offbeat numbers to which such other tunesmiths as Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright contribute.

Not surprisingly, Ebersole and Wilson seize every screwy opportunity they've been handed. The former, who never misses a chance to make hay when handed good songs and snappy lines, has her best role ever. She gets non-stop laughs but never loses sight of Edie's torment. The measure of Ebersole's triumph can be taken in the extended moment when, about to leave for the city yet again, she hears her mother's piercing call and must decide whether she's going or staying. At this point, the auditorium goes mum, and not a cough or a ruffled program is heard. (That's how you know a performance is whizzing down the tracks, unimpeded.) Wilson, wearing Paul Huntley's scraggly white wig, is equally hoot-provoking as a woman who may be operating without a full deck or may just be a wily lady coddling a troubled offspring. Together, she and Ebersole are a double-act that any vaudeville circuit mogul would feature at the top of the bill.

Sadly, though the 1973 half of the show is rock solid, the preceding segment -- set in 1941 -- is tissue-flimsy. Here, Wright, Frankel, and Korie speculate on a crucial East Hampton summer day during which the approach/avoidance routine that both Edith Beales play out for the rest of their lives is established once and for all. It's the day on which young Edie (Sara Gettelfinger) is about to have her engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Cavenaugh again) announced at a party. Not only is Big Edie (Ebersole, looking far more chic in this act) throwing the soiree, she's also planning to sing a few ditties, accompanied at the piano by the limp-wristed George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman). Others romping about Grey Gardens in its halcyon days are disapproving patriarch J. V. "Major" Bouvier (John McMartin) and young cousins Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier (Sarah Hyland and Audrey Twitchell), who for some reason are dressed by William Ivey Long as, respectively, Baby June and Louise in Gypsy.

Korie and Frankel apparently see this vignette, during which mama Beale consciously or unconsciously does her best to undermine her daughter's relationship with Kennedy, as their chance to write songs in the period's style. The Strong character, foppishly resplendent in a yachting outfit and playing like the love child of Cole Porter and Noël Coward, is the first giveaway of their intention, followed by the many pastiches intended to conjure the songs of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, and the Gershwin boys. What's conjured instead is Stephen Sondheim's conjuring of the same giants' work in the Loveland section of Follies; but while Sondheim does it spectacularly, Frankel and Korie do it less so. The only inspired number they've turned out is a luscious ballad called "Will You?"

Once upon a time, young theatergoers with more enthusiasm than pocket money indulged in a practice known as "second-acting" -- i.e. slipping into theaters during intermission, without having paid, to see Act II for free. Grey Gardens is a show for which second-acting -- after having purchased a ticket, of course -- is strongly advised.