Grey Gardens in Melbourne

Nancye Hayes & Pamela Rabe.
Photo: The Production Company

It’s raining brides. On this wet Melbourne Saturday afternoon they splatter across the shining roadway until they end up like windblown tulle and satin foam on the steps of Parliament House. They are tattooed and untattooed, elegant and garish, veiled and unveiled, wearing trains and not wearing trains. There are brides from the Hotel Windsor to the Princess Theatre, from Parliament to the Old Treasury Building. Their hired SUVs, enormous things like overweight moneyboxes, are lined up on both sides of the street: white on that side, black on the other. Around about are old cars and new cars, all with white, damp wedding ribbons bisecting their bonnets. Over on Bourke Street a wedding-cake set of China bride and groom run over the dark glistening roadway and between slippery silver tramlines towards a clutch of cameras and on into their wedding books. That night at the Playhouse it’s a bridegroom drought that’s the problem—or one of the problems.

It’s the Australian premiere of the 2006 musical Grey Gardens, the third musical in the Production Company’s 2011 season. If you’re sorry to have missed their musicals this year, this was the one to be most sorry to have missed. American theatre (musical and straight) loves its over-the-top, gothic grand hags and Nancye Hayes and Pamela Rabe gave roaring performances of two of the best.

The Grey Gardens story is an American industry. In the early 1970s the National Enquirer led off with a scandalous spread about a reclusive mother and daughter living in a decayed mansion in the East Hamptons. Their crumbling, stinking and unsanitary home was filled with fifty-two stray cats, several raccoons, much filth and many fleas: “a twenty-eight-room litter box” sings the musical and fortunately we don’t get to see the evidence. The story went media-wild and brought the health department running with an eviction order. Publically embarrassed relatives paid $32,000 to have 1000 bags of rubbish taken away and for necessary mansion repairs. The distressed gentlefolk, Edith Bouvier Beale and her unmarried daughter “Little” Edie, were cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The social register and Kennedy connections helped sell the story. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles pointed their cameras at the ladies, after paying them each $5000, and produced a documentary film. The two stars enjoyed the company and seized the opportunity they had been preparing for all their lives to give great performances including singing and dancing. Grey Gardens, the documentary, was a success—especially with gay audiences. Since then there have been books, more films, almost an opera, and now this musical. A 2009 HBO TV film Grey Gardens with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange is in most video rental stores.

In a certain Australian city the local newspaper wrote of an eccentric but artistically talented street person. Once we were close together in a bus. What the newspaper reports had not mentioned was the smell and the person’s obviously troubled mental condition—which was furiously and irrationally unleashed on unoffending passengers. Probably this stage version of the Grey Gardens story is creating affectionate images of something that was in reality very different. Turning “Little” Edie, who went from spoilt daughter to stench queen of the Hamptons, into a theatre queen has involved ignoring some very inconvenient lumps of reality. On stage it is funny when tinned cat food is confused with pâté, off stage it’s not so amusing.

Only at one place does the musical touch on the unspoken. Edith makes a reference to her daughter being committed. There is a pause, a very long one. The audience is absolutely still and silent. It is a chilling moment of reality, and then the play resumes with its mixture of laughter and tears. But that one moment is unforgettable; it’s what theatre does that film doesn’t.

The eight actors change roles during the performance. Pamela Rabe plays Edith Bouvier Beale (the mother) in Act I, and then plays “Little” Edie in Act II when Nancye Hayes picks up the role of the now eighty-year-old mother. Liz Styles plays youthful “Little” Edie in Act I before the role is taken over for “Little” Edie in her fifties by Pamela Rabe; Styles then plays several ensemble parts. It is a clever twist. The superb leading ladies have strong support from James Millar, Alex Rathgeber, John O’May, Ariel Kaplan, Bert LaBonte and several children who play on different nights. 

An offstage radio announcement sets the musical in motion with the background details, and the ladies take it from there with a brief 1973 prologue of two women squabbling and singing. From the first moment you know that the casting of Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes is exactly right. There are some plays which like their audiences, and this is such a play. In their squalid present Edith (Nancye Hayes) recalls a time “when summer was endless and the parlour was our showplace and we had music all the time”. The scrim rises and we are in Act I. It’s 1941 on the day when the engagement is to be announced of “Little” Edie (Liz Styles ) to Joseph Kennedy Jr (Alex Rathgeber). This is the engagement that mother Beale (now played by Pamela Rabe) destroys. Act II leaps ahead to the crumbling days of 1973. Across the stage at the beginning and during interval is an immense scrim with a representation of the mansion, one with clean lines and the other with ivy-covered decay. When this rises there is on one side a front door and on the other a staircase leading upstairs. When the house is bright and lively the place between has a grand piano and the action generally takes place around it. For Act II the piano is pushed back and covered and several messy and supposedly insect-infected beds are in the centre with a bedroom cooker, a record player, and an under-stairs cupboard. Throughout the play the ten-member orchestra is visible at the back of the stage.

Pamela Rabe is a standing ovation. This play with music is a strongly constructed drama and Rabe’s performance in her dual roles of mother and daughter is outstanding. As mother, she is a monster from whose love “Little” Edie can’t escape, and as daughter, she is trapped in her mother’s world. Rabe is completely attuned to her material and her audience. Whether singing, ruining a life, speaking to the audience or demonstrating her outrageous costume designs she is totally in control of us. It is powerful and emotionally intelligent playing that resonates because the actress is actually talking to the people sitting in the dark.

For those interested in small cultural signposts. Once, not long ago, those imaginative program biographies of male actors used to assume, in the last few lines, a gruff voice to ritually declaim that they were married to a stunning woman and had x number of beautiful kids. The subliminal message was that, even though they were thespians, they were, despite appearances, really quite straight. In a sign of changed times the bio notes for the musical’s US book writer and lyricist tell us who they are same-sex living with. Australian performers haven’t yet caught up, and a number still end with that other equally boring bit about being proud members of … Equity. Interestingly though, nowhere in the biographies of Pamela Rabe or director Roger Hodgman is it noted that they are married, to each other. 

Grey Gardens’ book is by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie. Grey Gardens puts the camp and gay sensibility back into musicals. In the documentary film the Beale ladies were their own camp creation; they knew they were being offered the fame they had always sought. Mother Edith loved singing and performing, a gift for this period-sounding score. One of the delights is Edith (Pamela Rabe) singing her version of a Negro “freedom song” with the black butler looking on. Edith Bouvier Beale is a selfish monster who destroys “Little” Edie’s marriage plans with Joe Kennedy Jr yet the act ends with daughter expressing love towards “Mommy, dearest”, the destroyer of her life. Nancye Hayes sings of them as “two peas in a pod”, and “Little” Edie can’t escape that suffocating and selfish maternal prison. At the end of the play mother, who has ruined daughter’s life by taking away her independence, encourages “Little” Edie to make a decision, about which can of Campbell’s soup she should open.

The music is enjoyable, though without producing the stand-out pieces that make standards. The tone of the play is lower-key Sondheim. There is a Sondheim song from Sweeney Todd, “Not While I’m Around”, that makes me throw things when it appears, as it does, in concerts. It’s a beautiful and lyrical number that typically gets a singer going all sweet and cooing, “Nothing’s going to harm you, not while I’m around.” In Sweeney it’s sung as a duet between a boy, Toby, and Mrs Lovett. She’s about to lock him into her cellar where she prepares her human pies and to send a knife-wielding Mr Todd in after him. Below the sugar coating it’s absolutely chilling, and warbling canaries who take it at face value deserve to follow Toby into the cellar. The music of Grey Gardens doesn’t have this depth. The last song stretches for this Sondheim sophistication but misses out. When Edith sings, “Given our amazing similarities we could be a plate of eggs and ham”, and comments, “Remember Edie, that was the first song I ever taught you”, she’s telling the story of the overbearing maternal selfishness that has produced this strange ménage. The song develops into a duet that tells the story of their relationship. It works well on stage. It’s a good ending, but the music does not provide the dark underpinning that the lyrics require and it fails to achieve the Sondheim standard that is probably being aimed for.

That afternoon, in a break between showers, the tattooed bride waited for the green traffic light and then, her train bundled up behind her like an untidy inflating bustle, held in place by a brave bridesmaid, crossed from the Windsor side to the Parliament side. Her un-regal progress between puddles stopped pedestrians and produced an outbreak of mobile phone camera clicks. The traffic, with staring drivers, halted even after the lights changed until impatiently queuing car horns got things moving again. That night, life in Grey Gardens didn’t seem all that peculiar. 

Grey Gardens played at the Arts Centre Playhouse, Melbourne, from November 24 to December 4.

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