Grey Gardens @ the Walter Kerr

This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don't like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today.

—Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, Grey Gardens

People come to Grey Gardens to see Christine Ebersole, and they come to see Christine Ebersole in the second act.

Oh, she's lovely and perfectly serviceable in Act I, where she plays Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, a fitfully flamboyant, unconventional 1940s society matron given to performing opera arias at dinner parties in her stately East Hampton home. But Act I is superfluous, a bit nonsensical, and dreadfully dull—at no point does the driving narrative, in which Big Edie sabotages her only daughter's chance to marry one Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (and thereby escape her mother's overbearing clutches), approach the urgency it deserves and desperately needs. The impression is that of watching seasoned Broadway professionals giving their all to sell middling dinner theater: despite their best efforts, there's no there there, or anywhere in sight. It's an overlong wasted opportunity and serves as an insufficient setup for the second act.

Act II skips ahead thirty years, and turns from mostly fiction to mainly fact, with events and huge chunks of dialogue drawn from the 1975 documentary of the same name. Ebersole returns in the character of the now-fiftysomething spinster daughter, Little Edie (whose creative expression is restricted to upside-down, inside-out dressing), with the indomitable Mary Louise Wilson taking on the role of the now frail but still fierce Big Edie. Mother and daughter are still living in the same Hamptons home (Grey Gardens, natch), which has gone from grand to ghoulish, littered with cats and fleas and literally falling apart around them (drawing the unwanted attention of neighbors and the local health department, much to the embarrassment of poor Cousin Jackie).

The two women lead a reclusive existence that has them almost welded together, like loony-bird bloodsuckers, subsisting on liver pate (or is that cat food?), wearing dirty clothing and sleeping on unwashed linens, both constantly nagging, ever ornery, spiteful, needy, petty, and pathetic, and yet—here's the draw—never without their charm and dignity. These aren't white-trash bumpkins; they're blue-blooded socialites bred for an aristocracy that's abandoned them to filth and insanity, and each places the blame for a lifetime of disappointment squarely on the other. Oh, the drama! The pathos! The humanity: how much we can hate the people we need the most.

What I wanted—and didn't get—was to know how the two women from the first act became the two women in the second act: exactly how do people with so much fall so far? Again, there's no narrative arc to tie it together, which makes for a lot of plot and character drift, and Act II is little more than a live presentation of the film with showtunes. And the sheer delight of four of the songs—"The Revolutionary Costume for Today," "Jerry Likes My Corn," "Around the World," and "Another Winter in a Summer Town"—only made me wonder how the rest could be so thoroughly forgettable.

But in the end, you get what you came for, and both Ebersole and Wilson are a wonder to behold: these are big, brave, bold, terrifying portrayals of women truly on the verge. And they do full justice to the characters—both fiction and fact—by not turning them into caricatures in the process (well, no more than necessary). A great show? No. But two of the greatest performances I've seen, and very worth seeing.

Here's the extraordinary Ebersole in all her sartorial glory at last season's Drama Desk Awards: