Over the past few days I had the opportunity to re-see Grey Gardens (left) and The Little Dog Laughed, two Broadway shows I'd first caught in their Off incarnations. Both had serious flaws that have been only partly fixed, and both illustrated why seeing a show in a smaller setting tends to be preferable.
Grey Gardens is based on the Maysles brothers' doc of the same title, which portrays the decrepit life of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie, in the early 1970s. The show's second act follows the movie pretty faithfully, with Mary Louise Wilson and Christine Ebersole giving stunning performances as Edith and Little Edie, respectively. The problem is that book writer Doug Wright added a whole new prelude set in 1941 in which we see how the mother-daughter duo (with Ebersole playing Big Edie and Erin Davie playing Little Edie) got that way. But did we really need any insight into how the women of Grey Gardens (the name of their mansion) turned out the way they did? Why this mania to explain everything? Couldn't the show have been a one-act, 90-minute piece set in the 1970s? One of the reasons the movie is so fascinating is that there are suggestions to a past grandeur but the women's eccentricities stand on their own.
While the musical's first act has been tightened up, its pulse rate is still flat. It feels like a drawing-room dramedy, making the second act even more stupendous in comparison: Suddenly, you feel as if you're watching a completely different show, and a much better one at that. And it was even better Off Broadway, where the cozier setting allowed the mix of pathos and ridicule to gel to a highly uncomfortable degree.
As for The Little Dog Laughed, it is still very funny and it feels good to have a genuine comedy on Broadway. Douglas Carter Beane has a way with one-liners and the cast ably delivers them. And yes, Julie White—as a Hollywood agent with her tongue set to stun—is amazing. But this time around she turns it up a smidgen too high, as if she felt she had to fill every nook and cranny of the bigger house. Her performance was absolutely perfect when the show was at Second Stage; now it feels a bit shrill, especially in the first act, and rates only as almost perfect. Still, this is a quibble: Comedic tours de force such as the one White delivers nightly are too rare to be missed.