Grey Gardens: 1. An estate in East Hampton, N.Y. 2. A 1975 documentary about the bizarre daily lives of fallen socialites Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie"), the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis who occupied the house from 1923-1979 and were threatened with eviction for allowing it to fall into a state of egregious neglect—and sharing it with 52 cats. 3. A 2006 musical stage adaptation of the film, with music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie and book by Doug Wright.
The latter opened Friday at Portland Center Stage under the direction of Chris Coleman. It's a curious piece of theater: The first act, set in 1941, is a frothy comedy full of improbably funny rich people saying horrible, witty things. Its plot, concerning Little Edie's battles with her inappropriately musical mother and failed engagement to Joe Kennedy, is fiction. Its songs are bright, witty and forgettable pastiches of 1940s hits. It is pretty, but hollow.
The second act is a full reversal, with dialogue pulled almost entirely from the documentary; acerbic, near absurdist songs with interesting melodies; and a tone that moves from brash to forlorn. It's a shame you have to sit through the throwaway first half to see it. I assume Frankel and Korie, mistaking the Bouviers' story for comedy, reasoned their fall into slovenliness needed an introduction to sell the joke. Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the humor in despair.
PCS's production is solid, but fails to overcome the play's flaws. Rebecca Eichenberger, who plays Big Edie in Act I and Little Edie in Act II, is an astonishing performer with a gorgeous voice whose impersonation of the bitter, rambling daughter is impeccable. Dale Soules plays the older Big Edie with wry joviality. The set, by G.W. Mercier, is a fastidiously decorated marvel that makes good use of the revolve the company installed for Cabaret. But it's heartless, an intricate but pale thing with no power to move—a fault that lies not with Coleman, but the musical's creators.
Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Saturdays, June 6 and June 20, 2 pm Sundays. Closes June 21. $33.50-$68.50.