December 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Broadway’s most daring new musical focuses on Edith and Edie Beale, mother-daughter eccentrics (and relatives of Jackie O.) whose decades-long slide from wealth and social position to fetid, flea-ridden squalor was memorably preserved on film by documentarians Albert and David Maysles. Grey Gardens is a musical in two acts and two styles. The first, set in 1941, has a sophisticated Cole Porter veneer, with darker undertones: Edith (Christine Ebersole) is a dizzy society hausfrau and would-be light soprano, planning to upstage the high-strung, unhappy Edie (Erin Davie) — popularly known as ”Body Beautiful Beale” — at her own engagement party. Things go wrong, and, by intermission, Edith’s marriage is over and Edie’s fiancé, Joe Kennedy (Matt Cavenaugh), has bolted. Act 2, set three decades later, is a mordant musical psychodrama laced with black comedy. Now the ladies are recluses, holed up in a crumbling Hamptons beach house overrun with cats, garbage, and ghosts. Edith (now played by Mary Louise Wilson) issues commands and complaints from a debris-filled bedroom, fawning over the handyman (Cavenaugh) and listening to Norman Vincent Peale on the radio. Edie (Ebersole) roams the house in bizarre getups, relives the past, feuds with Edith, and plots her escape.

It sounds like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with songs, yet Grey Gardens is no freak show. The script — by I Am My Own Wife playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright — brings the ladies’ destructive yet unbreakable bond to vivid life while preserving the mystery behind their spectacular decline. Michael Grief’s handsome, sensitively directed production gets exactly the right balance of laughter and loss, thanks to a first-rate cast led by Ebersole and Wilson. The latter is a riot as the elderly Edith, a dreamy, dotty old crone who keeps insisting, infuriatingly, that she got everything she wanted out of life. Then there’s Ebersole’s astonishing double turn, as the 1941 Edith, swanning about the stage and mortifying her daughter with her tasteless program of songs (including a hilariously politically incorrect ”colored folks” number), and later as the 1973 Edie, cheerfully explaining her batty fashion sense and rehearsing the bizarre dance numbers she thinks will launch her in show business. Underneath it all is a terrible sadness; Edie’s 11 o’clock number, ”Another Winter in a Summer Town,” is a harrowing statement of surrender that approaches high tragedy. (Tickets: or 212-239-6200)

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