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Originally published Friday, March 22, 2013 at 5:00 PM

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‘Grey Gardens’: Freak show or poignant portrait?

A review of the off beat docu-musical “Grey Gardens,” a coproduction of the 5th Avenue and ACT theaters, playing at ACT through June 2, 2013.

Seattle Times theater critic

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

‘Grey Gardens’

Through June 2, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $49-$77 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

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“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby.”

Different doesn’t begin to describe Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter “little” Edie, conjured in all their bizarre, pathetic, poignant glory in the fact/fiction Broadway musical “Grey Gardens.”

The skillfully mounted Seattle debut of the uncommon show, as directed by Kurt Beattie in a 5th Avenue Theatre-ACT Theatre production at ACT, is first-rate all around (despite some acoustical limitations, in this in-the-round staging).

But it can, aptly, make your skin crawl as the Beales are conjured from the cult documentary film also titled “Grey Gardens,” and the 1970s tabloid reports of the shocking squalor these Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis relations lived in for decades.

In a brief prelude, through a Miss Haversham-like shroud of gauzy curtains circling the Allen Theatre stage, the elder, bossy, crippled Edith (Suzy Hunt) and her zanily attired, soured-but-spirited daughter Edie (Patti Cohenour) languish and bicker in their trashed mansion.

But soon Doug Wright’s script and Matthew Smucker’s clever pop-up set circle back from 1973 to 1941 — same house, but different era, mood and movie.

Be grateful, because “Grey Gardens” might have been just a Gothic wallow in bitchy grotesquerie. Instead, like “Gatsby,” it also cannily questions our fascination with and envy of the dynastic rich — and our schadenfreude when they topple from on high.

Act I quickly takes on the trappings of a screwball romantic comedy a la “The Philadelphia Story,” set in a much posher Grey Gardens, the Beales’ home in exclusive East Hampton, Long Island.

The younger Edie Beale (Jessica Skerritt) here is a fetching debutante betrothed to rich, handsome Navy pilot Joe Kennedy Jr. (played by Matt Owen).

Edie fears her eccentric, showoff mother (Cohenour) will upstage her at the engagement party. Cracking wise are stock comic figures: smarty-pants little nieces (Analiese E. Guettinger and Montserrat Fleck), a huffy major dad (Allen Fitzpatrick), an unshockable black butler (Ekello J. Harrid Jr.) and Edith’s flippant pianist-consort (Mark Anders).

In the spirit of Stephen Sondheim's “Follies,” the tunes by Scott Frankel with lyrics by Michael Korie handily parody and upend vintage Broadway ditties — the ironic “The Girl Who Has Everything,” the jitterbugging duet “Goin’ Places,” the chipper, then foreboding, train ode, “The Five-Fifteen.”

But as shadows of Brahmin elitism, sexual innuendo and misogyny descend, the farce darkens. Mother-daughter spatting is unmasked as ugly dysfunction. Tragedy and poverty draw nigh.

The seeds are sown for the Beales’ parasitical codependence — though you have to fill in some blanks of how it led them into hermetic, cat and vermin-infested wretchedness.

Edie’s brazen wit and exhibitionism, as she models her homemade fashion designs and squawks a flag-waving anthem (“The House We Live In”) echo very amusing scenes from the documentary.

But “Grey Gardens” doesn’t gloss over the twisted misery of women unable and/or unwilling to shake their passivity and ill-preparedness for a servant-free life. (Their abandonment by Jackie O and other relations? That’s another story.)

When a delivery boy (Owen) drops by, the Beales’ delusions and competition for his casual attentions get ugly, and sad. And the haunting ballad “Another Winter in a Summer Town” makes their mutual helplessness heartbreaking.

Or not. One can recoil just as easily from “Grey Gardens” as appreciate its black humor and metaphorical ironies. Either response is understandable.

However, the show’s superb cast (and hidden musicians) are irreproachable. Hunt deserves a medal for vanity-free bravery — as does Cohenour, who with her Broadway-honed, comic timing and sensitive acting, makes both Beales more than the media caricatures they’ve become.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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