By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Showing off her attire, the woman confides it is the "revolutionary costume of the day," and gets an uproarious laugh at the well-known quote.
From the moment actress Christine Ebersole opens her mouth to start the second act, she inhabits Little Edie Bouvier Beale, looking and sounding astonishingly like the real woman, known and beloved by millions who've seen the cult classic Grey Gardens, the 1976 documentary film made by brothers Albert and David Maysles. And legendary stage actress Mary Louise Wilson is the spitting image of Beale's aged mother.
Long before reality television and cinema verité, the Maysleses focused their cameras on Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jackie Kennedy living in squalor in a once-grand East Hampton mansion. Some of the lines in the second act are taken directly from the film. Little Edie's wacky sense of style and her philosophical musings made fans among gay fashion designers such as Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi.
This is a preview performance for the press. The Broadway opening is five days away. When the show is in previews, Wright watches from the rear of the theater, pacing like an expectant father. On opening night he'll be down front, surrounded by family and friends from Dallas, watching like a paying customer.
The all-important reviews will come out on November 3, the morning after the opening. He's anxious; none of his plays has ever gotten a positive review by Ben Brantley, the Times'theater critic. But there's little Wright can do now. It's crunch time.
Wright had discovered the documentary while pawing through a DVD store in Brooklyn. "I was amused and horrified," he says. "I put it away and didn't think about it again."
Several times actresses approached him about adapting the documentary for the stage. But Wright believed the film defied adaptation. "It's so nonlinear," he says. "It's edited within an inch of its life with a psychological logic, not a narrative. There's no story. You never know who is lying and who is telling the truth."
After he won the Pulitzer, Wright was approached by composer Scott Frankel, who'd secured the rights to the film. "He knew of my interest in the eccentric," Wright says. "I think eccentrics are really people in whom we find our own foibles concentrated and distilled. Like my Aunt Mary Louise. Her home was filled with giant stacks of newspapers. She was hoarding time. It was about hanging on to days she had lost. Spend time with the Beales, and you see your own anxieties and hopes for the future laid bare."
Asked why gay men have such a fascination with Little Edie, Wright cocks his head and thinks for a few moments. "I think gay men see her as perversely courageous," he says. "Little Edie's best defense was an unerring sense of style and a caustic wit. I think that's where gay men find their own defenses. Edie's a patron saint of all those qualities."
In the film, there are suggestions that Little Edie might have been mad. "Albert Maysles bristles when people say she was mentally ill," Wright says. "She was occasionally termed schizophrenic, and there's some outtakes suggesting that. There were always the hints that they weren't fit. But anyone who does something exceptional has got to be observing a different drummer. Was she crazy or a maverick? I think she is both."
Sitting down to work on the play's book, Wright didn't feel the story worked by taking up where the film did. He wanted to go back in time and answer the big question: How did these once-prominent women fall into such decrepitude?
"We started to do research," Wright says. "We learned Big Edie was a flamboyant showoff. She'd been divorced by telegram. Little Edie's engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. was broken off under mysterious circumstances. I thought, 'What if this all occurred on one momentous day?'"
Both women had a passion for American popular music, which provided a way to get the type of songs popular in the '30s and '40s into the show. Wright believes the mother and daughter had talent but were bound by the expectations of their social class. "They weren't supposed to have outspoken opinions and perform in front of company. They weren't supposed to have political agendas. Part of me thinks that if either Edie had been born into our age, they would have been very powerful stars."
Writing a musical was a stretch for Wright, whose only play with songs had been a spoof called Buzzsaw Berkeley. For the second act, Frankel, Wright and lyricist Michael Korie decamped to a place in the country and wrote together, lifting lines and actions from the documentary into the dialogue and lyrics.
The first act takes place on the day of Little Edie's engagement party, with everyone elegantly dressed in the grand house and young Jackie Bouvier darting around in equestrian costume. Big Edie, a beautiful, talented narcissist, sabotages her daughter's engagement to Jack Kennedy's brother and her future as the First Lady. (That honor would go to Jackie.)
The second act shows Big and Little Edie in 1973, the estate now crumbling and infested with raccoons, cats and fleas. The mother and daughter dance a tight ring around each other in a sadistic relationship that conjures up all that's happened in the past. But it doesn't give easy answers. Has Little Edie sacrificed her life to the monstrous mother? Or has the mother provided a safe haven for the unstable daughter?