nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
March 5, 2006
Not since Arsenic and Old Lace has there been a story about two more stageworthy old ladies. Now Playwrights Horizons brings to life “the Edies,” Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie” Beale, who were famous for being Easthampton’s “most notorious recluses,” related to Jackie O (aunt and cousin, respectively) and unknowing fashion icons.
You may remember the 1975 documentary-cum-cult-classic Grey Gardens, although if you’re like the friend who accompanied me, you’ve never heard of it. In the case of this show, I recommend watching the movie before seeing the show. I had a lot of explaining to do to get my pal up to speed, even after we left the theatre.
The Reader’s Digest version of the movie is as follows: The Maysles brothers (who also made the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter) were asked to do a film on Lee Radziwill (sister to Jackie O) and her family. When they got to Edith and Edie, holed up in one room of their 28-room mansion in total squalor, they realized that they had hit a goldmine and changed the film entirely.
What happens in the movie? Not much. It’s a deep character study, shot over six weeks. The Edies touch briefly on their history, their famed relative, and how life once was grand, but the focus of the film is the gnawing dynamic between mother and daughter. They bicker and berate yet they live together in one room, on twin beds, with a dormitory-style refrigerator and a hot plate (mother cooks soup in bed). The house is infested with cats (52), raccoons, and fleas. It’s a total train wreck, and I’ve seen it countless times.
The stage version is very clever. That book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Corie chose to make it a musical makes sense—it is chock full of camp, the music is fun, and the setup is quite clever.
Act I takes place in 1941, before World War II, when Little Edie was on top of everyone’s social calendar. She was courted by a Getty and two Rockefellers and, on the evening displayed here, is about to announce her engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (older brother to JFK). Edith is getting ready for her moment in the spotlight at the engagement party, a lawn party at their gorgeous home Grey Gardens, in rehearsal for a concert she was going to give. Edith was known for her “parlor concerts” and had a close bond with her ascot-wearing, scotch-drinking pianist George Gould Strong. Little Jackie and Little Lee are running around the house, in awe of their older glamorous cousin. It seems like “Little Edie” is poised to live the life of a first lady, eventually realized by her cousin.
Act I mixes fact and fiction. Mother seems to want the best for daughter but can’t seems to step out of her own spotlight, real or imagined. Daughter’s life falls apart in one evening. Edith, in an effort to either not let go of her daughter or to not let her life surpass that of her dear mother, spills a little “dirt” on Edie. In the mind of a Kennedy with his eye on the White House, this has the potential for scandal and he hits the road. Little Edie, alone, does the same.
Act Two highlights the film, showing Grey Gardens in a total state of disrepair (it was going to be condemned by the Board of Health until Jackie made a small donation to ensure it would pass inspection and get out of the tabloids) in 1975. We see Little Edie, back at Grey Gardens and absolutely out of her mind. She is touting the virtues of what she calls her “revolutionary costumes,” wearing a skirt pulled up over her chest, and one on her head like a pseudo-turban, topped off with a brooch. Edith does a lot of sitting down and is always hungry, calling on Edie constantly to fix her supper or just generally be around, which further hits home the dysfunction in their relationship. Mother just couldn’t let go.
The music is kicky and campy. Edith’s parlor concerts alone are cause for applause: they go everywhere from arias to un-PC yet hilarious spirituals.
The entire company is on the mark: sharp, funny, and very well-cast. The divine Christine Ebersole is absolutely fantastic as Big Edie in Act I and Little Edie in Act II. She wears a skirt on her head like nobody’s business and has got a voice to beat the band. Mary Louise Wilson, as Edith in Act II, is all at once hilarious and cruel, delirious and calculated. Both ladies manage to walk the line I imagine was walked by mother and daughter—on the surface they don’t seem so crazy, but once you look around, it comes screaming out. Walking that same fine line is Sara Gettelfinger as Little Edie in Act I. The grace and poise with which she charges Edie belies Ms. Beale’s ultimate demise.
The only piece missing is what happened in those 30-odd years between Acts I and II? We can assume that Edith, whose husband left her and whose father disowned her, slowly lost her mind while raising three children alone with dashed dreams of stardom. But why did she stay in Easthampton? And why on earth did Edie come back? How did she go from the verge of living Jackie O’s life to being a crazy lady with a skirt on her head? She left Grey Gardens for Manhattan with dreams of becoming a dancer, only to return home in her early 30s. Couldn’t writer Doug Wright find something to stage in that story? He came up with a back-story to fill Act I, why not a little taste of something in the middle?