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Had anyone given Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale a copy of My Mother/My Self, she would have tossed it across the room and done one of her spirited interpretive dances on its cover. In an outfit suitable to the occasion, of course.
Mother-daughter power struggles and jealousy poison the well repeatedly in the Acting Up Stage production of Tony-winning musical Grey Gardens, with dynamic Lisa Horner superbly playing both 40-something frustrated Broadway belter Big Edie in Act 1 and her namesake middle-aged daughter in Act 2.
The tuneful exploration of the spectacular fall of so-called American royalty — they were cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — springs from David and Albert Maysles’ 1975 documentary about the strange existence of an eccentric mother and daughter. Both were beauties who dreamed of stage and screen stardom, yet they ended up living in squalor in a rotting East Hampton mansion.
Set in 1941, Act 1 provides a backstory for how moneyed society darlings Big Edie (Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale) and her daughter Little Edie (a delightful Kira Guloien), a spirited gal desperate to break free of her controlling mother, eventually morphed into the odd pair living with 52 cats and not much else.
There’s a party that afternoon to announce Little Edie’s engagement to handsome Joe Kennedy Jr. (brother of JFK). Big Edie plans to work through a rich program of vocal numbers at the bash but, furious with her daughter’s insistence she keep quiet, trades entertaining the guests for a cruel act of sabotage.
Camellia Koo’s set, dominated by a triple staircase, goes from Hamptons showplace to squalid squat for Act 2, which Horner — now as Little Edie — kicks off with a show-stopping number by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”
It signals a change in tone from a bright 1940s Hollywood-style musical to decay in mental, corporal and environmental senses, further echoed in Horner’s heartbreaking defeat with “Another Winter in a Summer Town.”
The dialogue reverts to familiar exchanges from the Maysles’ documentary, delivered in Little Edie’s signature nasal tone with Horner uncannily nailing her onscreen tics and fussy gestures.
Nicola Lipman takes over the role of 79-year-old Big Edie and while she’s game as the cranky old woman, especially with a silly-yet-touching ode to the praises of boiled corn, she looks too young for the role.
Doug Wright’s book devotes much of its time to the repeating jealousies and resentments that fuel the love-hate relationship between mother and daughter. For Little Edie, who confesses to finding it difficult to see the line between past and present, these consistencies form the heart of her struggle.