note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Stuart Kurtz
We can beat around the bush about Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' "eccentric" aunt and cousin, or we can break one of the last taboos and call their strange behavior what it was - mental illness. As it stands, the musical should get a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It is both loving and hostile to the Beales (and Bouvier's and Kennedys). It indicts the oppressive world-gone-by of deb balls and chilled aspic, but it never addresses mental illness in a serious way.
Spiro Veloudos' production of Grey Gardens at The Lyric Stage, playing until June 6, is based on the production that travelled from off-Broadway to Broadway in 2006. The book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, with Lyric musical direction by Jonathon Goldberg and choreography by Ilyse Robbins are captivating in two ways. They partly dignify the swizzle stick set as High Society once did, and yet their cynicism is enough to spoil the vichyssoisse. Urinetown mocked upper class pretensions with more biting wit. Grey Gardens seems to question the materialism and lavish lifestyles of the Beales while suggesting the antidote to their later troubles is to escape into the old pages of the Social Register in their disturbed minds.
Wright, Frankel, and Korie based the musical on a documentary of 1973 by the Maysles brothers. It is the story of Edith Beale and her daugther, "Little" Edie, once the pinnacle of Hamptons society, who were found by the Board of Health in 1972 living in Grey Gardens, their 28 room estate, in filth. They shared the house with cats and raccoons, and were eating cat food. This was a more interesting tale than the film on Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, the Maysles had planned to shoot.
Frankel and Korie decided on a structure of a prologue (1973), Act I (1941), the time of Little Edie's engagement party to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and Act II (1973), like the prologue, of the Beales living in a decrepit version of their formerly glorious estate. It works, to a point. The sets by Cristina Todesco and lighting by Scott Clyve rightly express the haunting past of 1941 and the physical deterioration of the house and mental decay of the women by 1973. The full connection between the two acts and prologue, howdever, does not make sense. Edie says, "It's awfully difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." In the play's case, it is.
Grey Gardens smacks of the same quagmire the movie "A Beautiful Mind" got sucked into: that is, ignorance of what mental illness is about. The production gets stuck on broken dreams and the cruel mothering of Edith as the source of problems, and certainly there is that component. Still, the collaborators who gave us the creation are no psychiatrists, and it is clear they have no idea what ailed the Beales. It was probably the combination of Mr. Beale's neglect, Edith's fears, upper class prejudice and the biology of mental illness.
While the connection between the past and present acts is lost, one can sense, as stated, the break-down of family life and the sense of promise that starts out the whole business.
The opening ballad that Edith plays on her phonograph in 1973 is the song "The Girl Who Has Everything," which is the pivot point that transports us into the past. It's last line, "The girl who has everything...but time," is the slightest indicator of something amiss. From there the songs decline from upbeat and hopeful to the tipping point of disruption. But the early songs have those hints.
In "Five- Fifteen" Edith vows not to ruin Edie's day, but we know otherwise. She admits overspending Mr. Beale's money, and chastises her accompanist, George Gould Strong (played by Will McGarrahan), on drinking.
In "Two Peas in a Pod," Edith and Edie sing,
"Drift Away" has a line about a cat too. Korie might have added a line, though, about pate in "Five Fifteen" to foreshadow the "pate" Edie served to her mother in later years. This foreshadowing occurs elsewhere. In "'Goin Places" the bright future of Joe and Edie is undercut:
Edie: As long as I escape my mother! Joe: Your Mother? Shouldn't I be the one who matters most?
Edie, and Edith vocalize "Mother Darling" in a frivolous tone, but lyrics about Edie's behavior indicate these clues of later disintegration:
Edith: Decorum? You're a fine one to lecture me about propriety! Those visits from the head-mistress! Imagine! Wearing lipstick to school - "temptation red!" - at only thirteen; the whoe town was talking! Why this house --- this very house --- was positively blanketed in adolescent shame!
Norman Vincent Peale, the preacher/pop psychologist who was an idol to Edith, makes an incongruous appearance late in the second act. He sings "Choose To Be Happy," with
It mocks Joe's promise to Edie in "'Goin Places"
Add to the pot the social factors that may have added to the Beales' disturbances such as Major Bouvier's number adjuring Jackie and Lee to marry well, or the racist "Hominy Grits."
The casting choices are noteworthy in that Leigh Barrett, who has a strong mezzo-soprano voice, plays both Edith Beale in 1941 and "Little" Edie in 1973. What's that old line about daughters becoming their mothers?
What is not a good choice is the inclusion of the preacher and pop psychologist, Norman Vincent Peale, whom Edith admired. It is not clear whether his song, "Choose to be Happy," is supposed to be ironic or points a way the Beale women can get out of their funk. The audiences may take it for face value, without knowing that Peale came under fire from the psychiatric community. According to "answers.com" he was accused of "watering down the traditional values of Christianity, of stressing materialistic rewards, and of counseling people to accept social conditions rather than reform them." He did not seriously address mental illness. He also seemed to reinforce the social structure, represented by the Beales, Bouviers, and Kennedys.
Peales' philosophy of changing your life for the better seems to butt heads with the book and lyrics in this play. The Edie of 1973 affects a gutsy, Long Island-y speaking voice and singing voice for "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." While that number is endearing, it gets Edie more giggles than admiration. Then she sings "Around the World" and "Another Winter in a Summer Town" with a trace of the voice of her former girl's self. It represents her inner spirit. The writers seem to say Edie can only find value in her life by escaping, in her mind, into the past. Edith's reminiscences include her in this strategy. So much for the women changing their lives for the better, with Peale's help or not. So much for the writers finding dignified voices for the older selves of these women.
We are supposed to take the 1973 Edie as flaccid, crazy, and unattractive and Edith as worse. Why can't the writers have found value in this pair? The writers are critical of the old plutocracy, but that is the aura by which they dignify Edie.
The older Edie says "God damn," and has two fits, but who wasn't acting out by 1973? The plutocracy fell with Vietnam and Watergate. Roosevelt's Hyde Park, with a name like Grey Gardens, was gone. The world Major Bouvier and Mr. Beale dreaded, one lacking in social graces, was the world that came about, as exemplified by Jerry, the handyman.
We should remember that the public found the Beales infinitely more fascinating in the fallen Grey Gardens than in its glory. The writers should have stressed that more. Instead they hearken back to a time and mental time when life was better. They themselves show that it was not better, and that is the personality disorder of this show.