by Laura Hutson
There were numerous references to kitties, a song about revolutionary costumes, and at least one "I'll shove you under the goddamn bed!" at Nashville Children's Theatre on Saturday night — Tennessee Rep staged a reading of Grey Gardens, an adaptation of the Maysles documentary of the same name, to a fairly packed house.
The play is a musical, which surprised at least two of my companions who were expecting a reading, not a reading with songs. But we were all pleasantly surprised as the exceptional pipes — especially those of Martha Wilkinson and Jennifer Richmond — belted out strange combinations of earnest songs like "The Girl Who Has Everything" alongside campy odes to the Marble Faun and his approval of the way Big Edie does her corn.
I would assume that this is the kind of play that only die-hard fans (I proudly count myself among them) would really appreciate, but several audience members professed an ignorance of the Bouvier-Beales — a problem director Rene Copeland begged them to resolve, citing YouTube as a source for the full documentary (there goes my morning).
The musical, which was first performed in 2006, broke the lives of the Edies into two acts — Act I worked like a flashback to the Beales' salad days of entertaining eligible Kennedys and living like aristocracy, while Act II presented them as they were in the Maysles doc, old, broke but not broken, living in the same mansion with a family of wild raccoons and a million fleas. As my date explained to a Grey Gardens novice, "It's like the darkest possible version of The Gilmore Girls."
The play itself works a little like fan fiction — I found myself wondering if I would be enjoying it quite so much if I hadn't already established a loving relationship with the documentary. But that same loving relationship made me a fairly staunch critic of the play. Among my complaints:
• In order to fully flesh out the song lyrics, Wright's Beales had a self-awareness that wasn't part of the real-life Beales' perspective.
• The tinny, whiny singing voices of both Big and Little Edie, at least as they were in the late-’70s, didn't translate into the songs as they were presented in the second act,
• Finally, as I wrote in big block letters on the playbill, there was no "Tea for Two"!
But the performances — especially by Wilkinson, who alternated between Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second — would have made the real-life Edies proud, and I found myself humming "That's the Revolutionary Costume of the Day" on several occasions the next day.
Did you see the REPaloud reading? Another incarnation of the play? Have questions about it? You're in luck! Grey Gardens playwright Doug Wright will be at Vanderbilt's Rand Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m. Ask him about the corn.