The show didn't start until 8 p.m. so I had time to browse around Dupont Circle, though found nothing I absolutely had to have at either the record store or the shoe stores. (I did see a gorgeous pair of shoes, but they were not gorgeous enough to justify 400+ bucks. In fact, I am not sure any pair of shoes is gorgeous enough to justify 400+ bucks.) Then I had dinner at Great Wall Szechuan House, which is conveniently next to the theatre. While the restaurant had made Tom Sietsama's "Best of D.C." list this year, I was, frankly, underwhelmed by the ma la tofu. The ma la dishes are supposed to be numbingly spicy, but this was only moderately hot and tasted a bit off. I suppose I would go there again and try something else, but there are better restaurants around the area.
But you wanted to know about the show. The story is about Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little Edie," and is based on actual events. The first act takes place in 1941, during the preparations for Little Edie's engagement party to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (called "Joe"). Edith's two little nieces, Jackie and Lee (later to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill) are visiting and there is a boogie woogie composer, George Gould Strong (called "Gould"), also living in the house. Basically, Edith and Gould perform various songs and Little Edie is mortified by the theatrics. Partly in response to a telegram from her estranged husband and mostly because she always has to be the center of attention, Edith suggests to Joe that Little Edie's morals are somewhat suspect, triggering a crisis.
The second act is set in 1973 and the mansion, Grey Gardens, is filthy and collapsing. Edith and Little Edie live in squalor, surrounded by cats. (Nowadays, we know about hoarders, but the syndrome was not as widely publicized in those days when mental illness was less talked about.) Little Edie had run off to New York City but returned home to East Hampton to care for her mother. There's also a young man, Jerry, who tries to help them, as "Little Edie" wrestles between her inability to fulfill her desires and her responsibilities to her mother (which she also can't fulfill).
The show was interesting, with more humor than I expected given the subject matter. In general, mental illness is not good material for musicals. The songs are pleasant enough, though not really memorable, and, given the plot, there's a merciful lack of big splashy production numbers. The most interesting staging for a song is for "Entering Grey Gardens," in which the characters from the past appear in the 2nd act to describe what has become of the house. The cheeriest song is "Marry Well," sung by a minor character, Major Bouvier (Edith's father) to Little Edie, Jackie and Lee. The advice to "marry well, little girls, marry well" was certainly taken by the latter two.
As for the performances, they were good, but not great. The idea of having the same actress play Edith in Act One and "Little Edie" in Act Two is a clever one, and while Barbara Walsh tried hard, but she had difficulty projecting her voice over the music at times. (To be fair, this could have been partially a problem with the acoustics of the theatre, as I was sitting at the far end of the right orchestra section.) Matthew Stucky, who played Joe and Jerry, was generally appealing, but I'm not quite sure why American-born Joe was played with an Irish accent (which he slipped up and used for Jerry a couple of times). Barbara Broughton as the elderly Edith of Act Two was excellent, however, and I also liked Bobby Smith as Gould and the two children (Alison Cenname and Simone Grossman) who played Lee and Jackie respectively. I was disappointed that the music was recorded, not played by a live orchestra. From where I was sitting, I couldn't tell if Gould actually played the piano or just hand-synched. (That's not a word, but it was the best I could think of for the piano equivalent of lip synching.)
One other peculiarity. At the end of the first act, there were flashing lights and an announcement that a fire had been detected in the building and people should leave through the nearest exit. It could have fit in with the action, but it was hard to be sure. Then, the same lights (but no announcement) came in the middle of the second act and the actors on stage paused. Again, it could have been metaphoric. But it was a very odd thing, overall. A few people did leave at the end of Act One and I'm not sure if they left because they were hating the show or they thought there was an actual fire. (An usher did say something to the effect of it being a false alarm.) I feel a bit dumb for not being able to figure out if that was all intentional.
My overall verdict is that it was worth seeing but would hot have been worth going out of the way for.