“Bold New Plays,” the Unicorn Theatre advertises. The company’s fine production of the fascinating new musical “Grey Gardens” (now through February 28) makes that slogan a promise. Producing musical theater about a deranged debutante and her hopelessly wacky mother is one of the bolder things you’ll see on a Kansas City stage this season.
That they carry off the task so effectively– and entertainingly– is a credit to the work of two of our town’s most gifted actresses, Cathy Barnett and Kathleen Warfel. Working with a fine cast under the well-paced direction of stager Nedra Dixon and musical director Anthony Edwards, this “Grey Gardens” team–against the odds and without most musicals’ six figure budget–makes it work.
The Maysles’ Brothers gritty documentary of the same name has to win the prize for oddest source material in musical theater history (okay, a man-eating plant is up there, too). Doug Wright, who wrote the book, demonstrated his penchant for desperate characters in his Tony Award winning play “I Am My Own Wife,” which Unicorn brought to us as well.
As it turns out, “Wife” was good practice for dramatizing the lives of two of Jackie (Bouvier) Kennedy’s cousins, mother Edith and daughter Edie Beale. Dug out of obscurity by the Maysles, the two Edies live in a broken down mansion in the Hamptons. Once part of glamorous East Coast society, the woman have fallen into disrepute and disrepair, just like the eponymous estate they call home.
In Act 1, we’re transported back in time to the early 40s to witness the fateful turning point that undoes the Bouvier/Beale women. The squalor suggested by Gary Mosby’s finely wrought opening exterior (well lit by Margaret Spare) gives way to a glamorous Hamptons drawing room, where Edie (played in Act 1 by lovely newcomer Lauren Braton) awaits her glorious new life as the fiance of dashing young Navy pilot Joseph Kennedy (Brandon Sollenberger in a nice turn).
Those plans all go to hell, undone by mother Edith (Barnett), who shares a family secret about her daughter that scares away the young politician on the way up. Kennedy can’t afford to have a scandal– or this kooky mother-in-law– put a dent in his plans, so he gets out of Grey Gardens while he can. Young Edie is not so lucky.
Act 2 finds us back in the filth, among the fifty-five cats, a racoon chewing holes in the walls and the two Beale gals, their beauty and glamour long faded into shit. Talk about your odd couple. Mother and daughter nag and harangue, curse and abuse each other. Edith lies in bed, drifting off into her reveries, accompanied by the old 78s she played as a girl in Act 1. Edie (Barnett, switching roles from mother to daughter) struts her stuff before her disapproving Hampton neighbors, determined not to let the authorities close down their cat house and put the brazen pair in the street.
As older, wizened Edith in Act 2, Kathleen Warfel hits just the right notes: demanding here, fawning there, turning nasty at the loss of her precious liver pate (or was that cat food?). She gets the advancing dementia just right. If you’ve had an elderly relative slip away mentally, you’ll recognize Warfel’s performance all too well.
And speaking of right notes, who knew one of our finest serious actresses had such a beautiful voice? Warfel’s haunting evocations of lost youth and a gilded past in songs like “The Cake I Had” and “Will You” are rendered in a lovely, litling soprano that nobody knew she had. I’m not sure what other musical roles are out there for her– but local producers, you take note, too.
The supporting players do a fine job, with Seth Golay as Edith’s hanger-on accompanist, Keenan Manuel Ramos as a loyal retainer and the always estimable Robert Gibby Brand as the Bouvier patriarch joining the aforementioned Braton and Sollenberger as stand outs. The little girl who plays Jackie Bouvier– our future First Lady at age twelve– even looks the part.
But the biggest bouquet belongs to Miss Barnett, playing the role that won Christine Ebersole a Best Actress Tony. I saw them both; both nailed the part. Wacky, pathetic, alternatingly bold and timid, Cathy inhabits the shattered world of Edie Beale in scary detail. At play’s end, her character’s inability to move along with her life is so heart-felt, so real, you have to turn away from the pain. Under Dixon’s and Edward’s fine-tuned direction, Cathy adds Edie Beale to Maxine, Louise in “Always Patsy Cline” and all of the other characters she has made her own. Kansas City audiences are the richer for it.