Mother and daughter share catastrophes and songs in ‘Grey Gardens’

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 1, 2016

Doug Wright is no stranger to strange characters.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the Tony Award for best play for “I Am My Own Wife,” a fact-based, one-actor drama about a German transgender woman who was admired by some, condemned by others. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, whom Wright interviewed extensively, was certainly eccentric, but she managed to survive in Berlin under both Nazi and Communist regimes.

And in “Quills,” Wright depicted the last days of the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in an asylum but as luridly imaginative as ever.

So “Grey Gardens,” also based on real people who wouldn’t or couldn’t conform to social expectations, would seem to be right up his alley. Max & Louie Productions opens the show on Friday.

The difference is that this one is a musical — a musical about a mother and daughter, both named Edith Bouvier Beale, whose lives played out as a folie à deux in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion.

Wright acknowledges that it’s an unlikely match of subject and style. “Scott (Frankel), my wonderful composer, loved the documentary” that Albert and David Maysles made at the estate in 1975. The estate and the famed documentary are also called “Grey Gardens.”

“Both women loved American popular song, the Great American Songbook songs — ‘No, No, Nanette’ was a real favorite,” Wright said. “This was their language.

“Scott said that was why this is a musical. I told him no, it was a psychological drama and had no coherent story line. But in the end, he seduced me. And he was right.”

Songs, of course, need not obviate psychological drama — and “Grey Gardens” has plenty of both. Known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” the mother and daughter belonged to a wealthy, prominent family; the mother’s brother, John “Black Jack” Bouvier, was the father of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Beale women were attractive, well-known socialites who at various times harbored theatrical ambitions and at all times a sense of the dramatic.

But Phelan Beale left his wife, she developed health problems, and “Little Edie,” living in Manhattan, found no success in acting or in love. She developed alopecia, which led her to adopt headscarves as her signature style. In 1952, she returned to East Hampton to live with her mother.

“They had very little contact with anyone but a few neighbors and a teenage boy who ran errands for them,” Wright said. “They came from American aristocracy, but their world was very limited.”

The once-beautiful house and gardens devolved into a horror of hoarding and weeds. Cats and other, less familiar, animals roamed inside; garbage piled up; few of the many rooms were ever used.

The little money they had to live on came from selling off the Tiffany silver until that, too, was gone. The health department stepped in and so, at some point, did Jacqueline Onassis. She and Aristotle Onassis paid to have the place repaired and cleaned up.

But it scarcely mattered. “Just a few years later, Grey Gardens had fallen into disrepair again,” Wright said. “Jacqueline Onassis certainly had compassion and affection for them, but she found them maddening.

“What happened after the cleanup suggests either a real inability to cope, or a perverse preference (for disorder).”

That distinction might have made a difference to the Beales, had they sought help. To a playwright, however, it works either way.

“Stories of marginalized people who exist outside convention can tell us a great deal about ourselves,” Wright said. “That’s why they are good subjects for drama. Edie and Edie qualify.”

A new show by Wright and Frankel, “War Paint,” just opened in Chicago, starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole (who won a Tony Award for her performance in “Grey Gardens”). The new show explores the rivalry between cosmetics queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.

As in “Grey Gardens,” book writer Wright and composer Frankel are joined in this latest outing by lyricist Michael Korie. Because of the Chicago production, Wright, who lives in New York, does not expect to be able to see “Grey Gardens” in St. Louis.

He wishes it were otherwise, mostly because Max & Louie staged “Quills” in 2014. “The folks at Max & Louie are absolutely fearless,” he said. “I never would have expected them to do that play, and they did it beautifully!”

“Grey Gardens” makes its St. Louis premiere with Max & Louie; since it ran on Broadway 10 years ago, it has played in cities everywhere.

That surprised Wright, who thought it would have been of interest mainly to Americans. “I guess,” he mused, “that everybody, everywhere, has crazy relatives.”