Setting off for L’Enfant Café, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my evening with Jeffrey Johnson, Little Edie, and the intimate Adams Morgan haunt currently playing host to both. I had a passing familiarity with Edie: seen bits of performance by Christine Ebersole from the Broadway production of Grey Gardens, lots of publicity for the HBO movie of the same name (starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie), and, perhaps most surprisingly, had never seen a second of the cult documentary which inspired it all (also called Grey Gardens, giving name to all the other pieces). I was tempted to do a bit more research, but ultimately decided against it, as I wanted to take in the evening on its own merits.
A cabaret experience begins with the venue, and L’Enfant Café is the kind of place that makes you feel cooler for having walked in. Intensely intimate, I would be shocked if the bar, where I decided to sit for the evening, was more than 20 feet from the stage at its furthest point. Lighting is kept to a just-visible-enough low, and café tables close to the stage demand reservation.
Dark, cramped, crowded – doesn’t exactly sound like praise, right? Yet context is everything, and the French cabaret charm of the place (as well as the hospitality of its very-present owners) makes all the difference in the world. It is atmospheric. Cozy. Communal. I was having a great time just being in the room.
Settling in, I ordered myself a bit of food, which was quite good; try the crêpes! In the interest of full disclosure, I also got some beer; after all, there is ordinarily a two-drink minimum and I felt obliged to review the show under standard audience conditions, thankyouverymuch.
Cue “Shadow Dancing”, teleporting the bar and all its inhabitants back to between Christmas and New Year’s Ever of 1978. The stage was set. Edie was near. We could feel it.
Entering from the back in stunning red (“Made from my best sheets”, she will tell us) and adorned with a wreathed headpiece came Edie herself, and Mr. Johnson, too, somewhere inside of her. From moment one, the two are inseparable, and you are simply watching a great character well-realized by a great actor.
There’s an inherent challenge in reviewing something adapted from a legendary mess of a cabaret. You want to be faithful, yet you want to entertain. You want the truth of the event to emerge without alienating the audience.
Johnson, however, has the best solution possible for this: he takes this shaky event from Edie’s life and uses it to reveal a ton about this character. Edie might not be a natural in cabaret, but Johnson sure is.
There are moments, for example, when poor Edie is just staggering under the weight of this whole thing, yet it is never in question that we are meant to be watching Edie’s challenge, as Mr. Johnson makes it clear from the beginning that he has this evening under control. “I’m not really a singer”, she reminds us several times, patting her head, adjusting her dress, and often meandering away from the mic as she spoke. She goes into long tangents about her family, the Kennedys, and especially her rivalry with cousin Jackie. Jackie comes up many times, though Edie insists there’s no jealousy between them, and that she never wanted what she ultimately gained.
As Edie finds her legs in this setting, she begins allowing herself to become more expressive, and even gets a hold of her snappy sense of humor. It’s noteworthy that there are many laughs in this cabaret, but almost none at Edie’s expense. If we laugh, Edie herself wants you to laugh. Johnson has created a complete character here, one whose confidence can give real bite to a quip (ask her how she feels about Dwight Eisenhower), or just as easily buckle under the weight of the audience and ramble without direction between numbers.
Oh yes, Edie does a few numbers. And though Edie herself is here to sing, Mr. Johnson keeps the musical moments integrated into the dramatic event. Edie isn’t much of a singer, but her gusto at singing “Lily Marlene” with the audience as a call-and-response, or “As Time Goes By,” or ringing in the new year with “Auld Lang Syne” despite not knowing the words, is absolutely winning. As accompanist David, Zack Ford provides able accompaniment (“That’s the best I’ve ever heard that song played,” praises Edie), while Jefferson Farber, as Gerald the sound-tech, charmingly gives Edie someone to talk to and helps keep her on track.
Gerald also indulges Edie’s whim to take a few questions from the audience. Before the performance, the audiences fills out question cards that are then read by Gerald. All I can say about this segment is that Johnson is absolutely seamless in moving between scripted material and improv, as the emotional story continues to advance and the zingers continue to fly. And Johnson himself makes the tiniest sliver of an appearance, breaking through on a particularly funny question, just enough to remind us, “Nope, that was wasn’t scripted.”
The timing of Edie’s cabaret, the end of 1978, turns out to be an incredibly illuminating one for the character. The documentary has been released, her profile has raised, “Mother” Edie Beale has passed away, and she is trying to sell their home, Grey Gardens. Thanks to Johnson, we’re privy to so much of what Edie is going through, and shares it thoroughly; I worried that Edie was already at a “10” emotionally when the cabaret started, but there was much more to come.
Long story short, Jeffrey Johnson has created an extraordinary, illuminating evening here, and I’d absolutely recommend you partake. The observations are insightful, the repartee witty, the atmosphere lovely. It’s a surprisingly deep, complete performance, and Johnson carries the full focus of the audience despite the busy world around.
“If Mother were here reviewing, there’d be some god-damned bad reviews!”, frets Edie at one point, but she has nothing to worry about from this critic.
You have 4 more chances to see Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney! this year: Tuesday, Nov 19, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Nov 24 – 26. All performances start at 8pm. L’Enfant Cafe, 2000 18th St NW, Washington, DC. Order online or call 202 319-1800.