Making Movies Sing on Stage

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In the film — which is being reissued next month, along with a new feature-length collection of outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens, by, guess who, the Criterion Collection — we see that the Beales they have perfected a kind of living-room vaudeville act, in which Little Edie lives in a world of grand delusions, and Big Edie tries to slap some sense, and some shame, into her with sharp words. The younger one uses the camera as a confidant (Edie had a crush on David M., and flirts openly with him); the elder at least recognizes the public stink that can come from airing dirty laundry. When Little goes on a rant, Big cries, "But the movie, the movie!" and points at Al and David as if they were arresting officers. Finally, exasperated, Mama snaps at her daughter, "It's a goddamn beautiful day! Shut up!"

Still, both Beales seem equally estranged from the norm, and the present. They are Blanche DuBois and her mother, Norma Desmond. So for a few decades, the Beales have replayed the old melodrama in their shrill, sad and funny way: chattier than Beckett, more mannerly than Mamet, as addled from their mutual confinement in Grey Gardens as Tennessee Williams' ladies were in their Glass Menagerie and as suspicious of the outside world that doesn't understand them. ("We'll be raided again by the Village of East Hampton," Little Edie frets wryly. "You know, they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.") The bickering banter runs through the movie and the musical, giving both versions their oomph and poignancy. The Beales look at oil portraits and sketches of their younger selves, thumb through old photographs of Little Edie in her deb lustre. Big Edie asks, "Doesn't she look like the girl who had everything?"

They bear the scars of a glamorous and corrosive family history, one to wallow in when they're not trying to blot it out. "It's very difficult," Little Edie says, "to keep the line between the past and the present." For her, the past was that of a debutante who in 1941 might have been thisclose to marrying Joseph Kennedy, Jr., if Big Edie hadn't scotched the engagement by telling Joe of her daughter's sexual adventures. (Or maybe she made them up. Or maybe this Kennedy was never that interested in this Bouvier girl. The past can be a fiction too.) The suggestion, at least in this version of a romantic Rashomon, is that with her husband close to abandoning her, Big Edie was desperate for a life companion, and Little Edie was the designated victim.

That, anyway, is the assumption that underlies the first act of the new Grey Gardens show, with a book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), lyrics by Michael Korie and music by Scott Frankel. In 1941, the Grey Gardens drawing room is a symphony of soft colors and a cacophony of beautiful people who thoughtlessly destroy one another. The father, J. V. Beale (John McMartin), is a bluff philanderer intent that his offspring marry well; his wife Edith (Ebersole) thinks of the place as a cage for her ambition as a professional singer; young Edie (Erin Davie) is a sweet young thing perfectly cast as the victim of her mother's need to control. For dry comic relief there's Edith's bisexual accompanist, Graham Gould Strong (Bob Stillman); and for plot purposes only there's young Joe Kennedy (Matt Cavenaugh), who can't see beyond the stereotypes of upper-class girls.

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