When his teacher asked the class to draw pictures for parents' day, little Doug Wright went to work with relish. His mom often pulled out an easel and paints on the weekends, asking her three children to draw pictures and make up stories about them. She read to them from Greek mythology, as well as tales about hobbits and other strange creatures. Wright had a vivid imagination and a fascination with the frightening and the violent. He loved drawing monsters, witches, ghosts, demons and mangled soldiers.
After lots of work, Wright proudly turned in his work of art: the severed head of Medusa with snake-hair writhing, face contorted in fury. His teacher at Hyer Elementary School in University Park stared at it in horror. "Why, Douglas," she said. "It's so...imaginative." She suggested that perhaps it could be displayed another time and promptly put it away.
"I had lavished so much attention and care on the Medusa head," Wright says. He knew it would never get a place of honor on the bulletin board. But instead of being angry, he felt a secret thrill. His picture was so illicit, so terrifying, so forbidden that it had to be hidden.
Like his own rage.
Large and gangly, Wright felt the sting of playground taunts. Sissy. Queer. Homo. And the cruelest of all: Faggot. His size made him a lumbering target.
"I think it does damage you. When you are the subject of attack on the playground, you don't fight back, because you won't win," Wright says. "You're being labeled and condemned in a certain way. That calcifies over time into real fury."
He translated that rage onto the stage. At 43, he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Still big and a bit pudgy around the middle, Wright has graying hair and a goatee flecked with silver. Behind stylish spectacles, his face is soft, his smile a bit tentative. It's hard to imagine him ever playing kickball.
Wright's parents never broached the subject of his sexuality. Neither did Wright. Popular with adults if not his peers, Wright thrived at school by seeking solace from teachers and making good grades. He took theater classes and performed in plays. "University Park was a very privileged place to grow up," Wright says. "There was a high premium placed on education. A lot of professors at SMU lived in the neighborhood. There was a great teaching staff at school. In that respect I was extremely fortunate."
Though his father is a securities lawyer and his mother a homemaker, the Wrights in some ways didn't fit into the Park Cities "bubble." After attending church at Highland Park Presbyterian, his parents became disenchanted with its conservative direction and found a small congregation called the Community of Reconciliation, a funky house church with a '70s vibe. Everyone sat around on beanbags, strummed guitars and talked about faith. Religious neighbors who feared for their salvation slipped gospel tracts under the Wrights' door.
But beneath the surface religiosity and conformity of the Park Cities, Wright sensed a simmering cauldron. "I think any kind of stringent conformity breeds perversity," Wright says. "As a kid growing up there, I had playmates whose parents had drug problems or secret closeted sexual lives or were always on the brink of scandal. I remember the Cullen Davis trial. A couple of teachers lost their jobs because of sex scandals with students. That was fascinating to me as a kid."
He was also fascinated by The Twilight Zone, Roald Dahl's books and cartoons by Charles Addams, whatever was weird and creepy and off-kilter. That fascination would serve Wright well. As a playwright, his work has focused on disgusting, closeted or contemptible people. His play and film Quills dealt with the aristocratic pornographer Marquis de Sade and featured obscenity, scatology, dismemberment, desecration and murder. Wright received his Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for I Am My Own Wife, the story of a transsexual antiques dealer in East Germany who ran a gay cabaret in her basement and allowed sexual trysts of all kinds in the attic. She also turned out to be an informant for the Stasi, the secret police, who may have betrayed a close friend.
Grey Gardens, his most mainstream work to date, opened November 2 on Broadway. A musical, it's based on the true story of two eccentric women born into America's aristocracy who ended up living in squalor, sharing a once-elegant mansion with 52 cats. "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale was the aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and "Little Edie" was the future First Lady's cousin. Entertaining, funny, touching and ultimately tragic, Grey Gardens could have taken place in Highland Park with nary a rewrite.
"Everything I know about perversity," Wright says, "I learned in the Park Cities."
In many ways, the evolution of his writing has mirrored an evolution in Wright's personal life. From a self-loathing teenager struggling with his sexuality to a playwright capable of finding humanity in the most monstrous people, Wright has crafted two female characters who could launch him into the ranks of marquee playwrights who not only win Tonys but see their work produced all over the world.
Before his first Halloween, Wright's mother asked her son who he wanted to be for trick-or-treating. Little Doug didn't hesitate.
"A fairy princess!" he said.
To her credit, his mother kept a straight face. But when she gave the boy a big box containing a costume, it didn't hold a pink dress, white wings and silver wand. Inside was a bright red devil outfit. "Better I be Satan than a run-of-the-mill fairy princess," Wright says dryly.
Even before he could utter words such as "sexuality" and "desire," Wright knew that he was homosexual. And so did his playmates. "Children were so cruel and direct," he says. He retreated into literature. At the library, he'd check out plays by Tennessee Williams and biographies of Sir Laurence Olivier and find kindred spirits.
The torture he endured in elementary and middle schools gave way to something else in high school: acceptance. Wright got active in theater, appearing in juvenile roles at Theatre Three. "There was something kind of larky about his performing," says Jac Alder, director of Theatre Three. "I saw him as the kind of person who could be a keen observer. I would have been surprised if he'd gone on to be a suffering actor. I did think he was a potentially very important theater artist, but I thought it might have been as a director."
It was performing that got him through high school. "I was good in plays, and I was funny and I had a sense of humor," Wright says. "I carved out a niche for myself." His friends cut through all of the schools' demographics, from cheerleaders to athletes to brainiacs to nerds. Though he squired a girl to every school dance, Wright kept a tight lid on his sexual feelings. He'd later find out that most of the girls he "dated" would come out as lesbians.
Remarkable teachers at Highland Park High School opened up literature and history to him, showing Wright the value of a life of the mind. "I could think, and that was as legitimate as kicking a soccer ball," he says.
Accepted at Yale University in 1981, Wright knew that he wanted to create theater, by acting and directing. He went into New York as often as he could to "gorge" himself on plays. "I was maniacally focused, maybe to a fault," he says. But in addition to a degree in theater, he needed something practical "to fall back on." Obsessed with the Renaissance and the Dadaists, he also majored in art history. Now he'd have two unmarketable degrees.
As a senior, Wright snagged a bit part in a play starring Christopher Walken. Each night, Wright, dressed as a servant, had to walk onstage carrying a tea tray. And each night, Walken would fill each tea cup to the brim, leaving Wright struggling not to spill anything before his exit. "He was a charming sadist," Wright says. Instead of being angry, Wright felt privileged to be noticed by Walken. "Every time I'd walk by him he'd give me this knowing grin," Wright says.
Though onstage with a star, Wright panicked when he thought about his future. "I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror," he says. He knew the man staring back would never be cast as Romeo or Hamlet. As a character actor, he'd have to wait years to look eccentric enough to get many roles. And actors had to wait on others to cast them to get work.
To write plays, all he needed was pen and paper.
Wright had written his first full-length play at age 10, filling several hundred pages of Big Chief paper with his printing. Ever encouraging, his mother typed it up.
So while waiting in the wings to appear in the play with Walken, Wright began writing a two-person script called The Stonewater Rapture, about the sexual fantasies and conflicts of a teenage couple, each repressed in their own way, and the bizarre result. "I took it to the Edinburgh Theater Festival" in Scotland, Wright says. "Now it's still produced in community and educational theater 40 or 50 times a year."
At graduation, Wright realized what he was really good at was going to school. He enrolled in a graduate program in playwriting at New York University, earning spending money through odd jobs. He also earned a few bucks reading scripts for studios and theaters, writing "coverage" and making recommendations. It was a first lesson in the world of screenwriting. One script he liked, called Born Jaundiced, was about a death-obsessed girl whose family had a funeral home; it was sinister and sarcastic. A watered-down version would get made as My Girl, a sweet and not at all sinister 1991 film starring Macaulay Culkin.
Wright's master's thesis was a play called Interrogating the Nude, about the Cubist Marcel Duchamp, painter of Nude Descending a Staircase, who turns himself in to police for dismembering his female model and scattering the body parts on the stairs. Performed by the Yale Repertory Theater, Nude was the first of his full-length plays to get any attention. (The next would be Watbanaland, about a woman who compulsively adopts Third World children when her husband refuses to impregnate her. "I think the review in the Times was so negative my friends advised me not to read it," Wright says.)
Another satirical college play was called Dinosaurs, a trailer-trash comedy inspired by the controversy over supposed human footprints mingled with dinosaur tracks at Glen Rose. It snagged the attention of TV legend Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family and many other sitcoms. (Wright sent the play to Alder for comments and got a harsh critique of the stereotypical way it treated religious country folk. "I said it wasn't worthy of him," says Alder, who is glad it was never widely seen. "I think it would have been a great mar on the face of Doug's oeuvre.")
But the play got Wright a three-year contract to write for television. Wright made a lifelong friend in Lear but struggled with the form. Writing for television frustrated him. "It's like writing a really rigorous poem," he says. "There are three acts, and each has to fit into a seven-minute time frame. I couldn't stay interested in a character from week to week."
Writing a play, in comparison, is like writing a cookbook, Wright says. "It's giving a list of ingredients: who the characters are, where they move, what they say. You need other people to attempt to follow those instructions."
At the end of three years, Wright's contract wasn't renewed. "I left the studio, and they'd already painted over my name in the parking lot," he says.
Discouraged and lonely, Wright felt adrift. Then he met Charlotte.
She greeted them standing in the doorway of her museum wearing her standard uniform: a black peasant-type shirt, black skirt, sturdy shoes and a simple string of elegant pearls. Though dressed like a hausfrau, nothing could hide the reality. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a man. Right down to her five-o'clock shadow.
Days earlier, Wright had received an intriguing letter from his high school friend John Marks, then a journalist stationed in Berlin for U.S. News & World Report. "I've found a true character," Marks wrote. "She's way up your alley. (And, believe me, I use the term she loosely.) I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed. Have I piqued your interest?" Marks had come across her story in a newspaper. There had been an autobiography and a documentary of this "sexual outlaw."
Wright flew to Germany, and the two men drove to meet Charlotte. As she showed them around her museum of antiques and oddments, Wright felt himself being drawn in by her strange story. A transsexual who'd killed her abusive father and survived the Nazis and the Communists, Charlotte seemed the epitome of a gay man with strength and courage, a homosexual hero. "That was the night I was convinced I was going to structure her life into a play," Wright says.
Back in New York, Wright wangled a commission from Playwrights Horizons, a workshop and theater where he attended a basement support group for writers (as did a lanky fellow named Aaron Sorkin). He returned to Germany and began interviewing Charlotte, whose real name was Lothar Berfelde, using a translator until his German improved. "My obsession with her had a lot to do with those days I spent on the playground," Wright says. "I thought those bullies were tough. They were hardly the Hitler Youth or the Stasi. She emerged from it intact."
Wright spent hours with Charlotte just talking, about friendship, love and sex of all kinds. At the time, Wright had no relationships. He'd repressed his sexual side. "I needed to seize my own life," Wright says, "to lose that vestigial, internalized homophobia. In my generation, when you are becoming aware of your sexuality, it's impossible not to be aware of those toxic attitudes, to emerge without self-loathing."
He wasn't completely closeted. Midway through college, Wright had made a difficult decision. There had been a mutual code of silence with his parents and siblings about his sexuality. Older brother Max Wright, a freelance writer, says it never occurred to him that his brother was gay. But it made sense in hindsight. In fourth or fifth grade, his little brother wanted to be a makeup artist. "The neighborhood kids would get together and play army," Max laughs. "Doug wanted to be in charge of issuing uniforms. Like the stereotypical gay guy. He'd never actually pick up a gun. You'd get shot and go to him to pick up a new uniform."
It was time to come out of the closet. Wright set up lunch with his dad back in Dallas. He was so anxious that he blurted out the purpose before they left home for the restaurant.
"Dad, I'm gay," Wright told his father.
"Good heavens," his father said, "I've known that since you were 6 years old. Now let's go get something to eat."
His very religious mother reacted with concern but became more comfortable with her son's announcement after reading a book called Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality by John Boswell. Both of his parents remained supportive. But neither parent knew how to help their gay son navigate the straight world.
Wright sat at Charlotte's knees and soaked up her wisdom. He came to see her as a mentor, parent and guide to the human heart. "With her counsel, that side of my life started to blossom," Wright says. "It was incredibly profound for me. I think she made me comfortable in my own skin."
The project took over his life. Wright would sell his used car to fund yet another trip to Germany. He borrowed money from his parents to pay rent. Then suddenly, Wright discovered his transvestite hero had feet of clay.
After the reunification of Germany, people were allowed to obtain the files kept on them by the East German Stasi. Charlotte agreed to let Wright request her dossier. "It was such a challenging document," Wright says. "It was in a very dense, bureaucratic German. It took me two or three years to understand it."
But one thing was very clear: Charlotte had signed an oath to the secret police and betrayed another antiques dealer, who ended up dying in prison. Charlotte minimized her duplicity, saying she'd misdirected the Stasi, that she was their least useful spy. Wright didn't know what to think.
"It was weird," Wright says. "I'd come to love Charlotte as a friend, but I had learned troubling information about her. I wasn't sure I wanted to break the story [in the play]. With no journalism credentials, I didn't feel like I had the requisite authority."
Wright would later discover that one out of every three East Germans was an informant for the Stasi. But he found himself stymied. He didn't know how to tell her story.
"I felt dwarfed by it," he says. And there was a certain amount of cowardice. He had unwisely signed a contract with Charlotte giving her final approval of the play, and Wright feared she'd nix it if he was honest. Though he received a fellowship from Princeton to complete the play, every time Wright sat down to work he was met with writer's block. Nothing was more boring than a biopic, but he could find no dramatic narrative. Only confusion and lies and a shape-shifting survivor.
Wright's breakout play came as the result of a somewhat disturbing gift. In a relationship at last, he received a biography of the Marquis de Sade from his partner, a psychiatrist. Under Charlotte's tutelage, Wright had finally embraced his sexuality by dating like a love-starved schoolgirl. The psychiatrist was his first serious relationship. Wright found the Marquis' writings "filthy, incendiary and dangerous"—sadistic musings and nasty doggerel and malevolent diatribes unfit for print. How could Wright reconcile that reality with his liberal political attitudes, his belief in freedom of speech?
Sitting down to write with the Marquis de Sade as a muse, Wright had no trouble with writer's block. The result is grim and fascinating stuff. The French marquis lives in an insane asylum, confined for his obscene literary efforts and bizarre behavior. The nobleman smuggles his filthy sex stories out to his printer with the help of a virginal laundry maid.
Learning that the lascivious tales are whipping the country into a tizzy, the madhouse doctor decides the Marquis' words are too dangerous and pressures the asylum priest to put an end to it. The priest first takes away de Sade's quills and paper. The Marquis then writes on his clothes with blood, the bed linens with wine and the walls with his own excrement. Stripped naked, he whispers a story to the next inmate, who passes it on, until it ultimately reaches the laundry maid, who writes down the words. One inmate takes the lascivious tale literally and rapes and kills the girl. But he refuses to keep quiet. The Marquis loses body parts—tongue, hands, feet, penis and finally his head. At the end of the play only his bloody torso is left.
The reaction to Quills is illustrated by a couple who attended a workshop performance and indignantly got up to leave. Wright watched them head to the back of the theater when the man heard something intriguing. The couple turned and came back in. A few scenes later, they made another exit only to be reeled back in by the dialogue. "They watched the entire play poised to leave," Wright says. "That was torturous but really invigorating to see."
Quills had a healthy run at an off-Broadway nonprofit theater. Though well-reviewed, it never moved to a commercial theater. Presumably the market for a violent exploration of sadomasochism and the limits of free speech isn't large enough to put butts in the seats.
Now Wright realizes that Quills was not only a play about the nature of expression but also his "breakup" play, written as he and the psychiatrist split. "It was an attempt to process what had happened to me," Wright says, "while trying to address questions in the culture that were really large and demanding."
When its success brought interest from Hollywood, Wright believed the play was impossible to transfer to film. "I owe the whole movie to Kate Winslet," he says. Fresh off the success of Titanic, the actress got a stack of scripts from the studio with the promise that her next movie could be anything she wanted. She plucked Quills from the pile.
Wright signed with Fox Searchlight, which asked him to write the screenplay and allowed him on the set during filming. The playwright discovered he had to make significant changes to make the story work onscreen. "The play is fairly camp," Wright says. "There's comic hyper-violence. A lot of the humor is in the stagecraft. On film, those things can seem flip and cheeky. Film is painfully literal. The violence is not metaphor. It's graphic and traumatizing to watch. I had to create a story that was less stylized and more psychologically driven. But the themes are the same."
Featuring an all-star cast with Joaquin Phoenix, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Caine and Winslet, the 2000 film was nominated for three Academy Awards—costume design, best actor (Rush) and best art direction. Some critics raved; others gave it vicious pans.
Wright's parents were undaunted by the depraved material. "My dad is proud of me to a comic fault," Wright says. "I could shit on a paper plate and he'd say, 'Son, you made a sculpture!'"
It was time to face Charlotte.
Glimpsing an intern gesturing at him from a door at New York Theater Workshop, indicating he was needed in the hallway, Wright shook his head no. The rumors had been circulating, but the possibility was something he didn't want to think about. Better to spend the day doing a table reading of an Austrian play he liked. Wright rounded up three wonderful actresses and an audience of 50 and refused to walk out on them.
Then a second intern came to the door, signaling that his presence was wanted. Wright shook his head again. Then a third intern. No, no and no.
Finally the artistic director came to the door. "I think you better leave," he said.
In the hallway, the artistic director handed him a phone and said there were 50 journalists waiting to interview Wright one by one.
"What's this about?" Wright asked.
"I think you know."
Minutes earlier, it had been announced that I Am My Own Wife, Wright's play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wright hung up the phone and instead called his mom and dad with the news.
"It was pretty much unfettered joy," Wright remembers. "It was so personal. It's my own unabashedly confessional play about my own sexuality. My parents had seen me grow up gay. It was my sexuality that drove me to Charlotte, and then it was all sanctioned by the Pulitzer."
After Quills, Wright had returned to the project but remained overwhelmed by the material. In an effort to break through, he went to a writer's retreat in Wyoming. While he was whining that he had no authority to write about such oppression, the retreat director exploded at him. "You're right!" Robert Blacker told him. "You have absolutely no authority—moral or academic—to write about 20th-century Europe. No credibility whatsoever. You're an authority on one subject, and one subject alone: your ongoing obsession with a remarkable character." That meant putting the playwright in the play.
At first Wright resisted out of vanity. Having someone portray him? Then he worried that people would think he was being arrogant. But in the end, putting himself in the action was liberating. "I could discuss with the audience all my passion and confusion about the subject in my own way," Wright says, "even my own writer's block."
The twist was this: One actor would portray 34 people, including journalist Marks, Wright and, of course, Charlotte.
Wright collaborated with actor Jefferson Mays and director Moises Kaufman, presenting the evolving play before audiences in La Jolla and Chicago. By the time they reached New York, "I was cautiously optimistic that it would work," Wright says. Its first major production took place at the Playwrights Horizons Theater—which had commissioned it 10 years earlier.
The family went to New York for the opening. "The night that I Am My Own Wife opened on Broadway, we were waiting in the front of the theater for it to start," Max says. "Doug put his arm around me and said, 'You know, Max, this play can close tomorrow. And I can be going to buy a copy of The New York Times to read the review that killed it and get hit by a bus. My obituary would have to say a Broadway playwright. It's the happiest moment of my life.'"
The audience loved it, and the political subtext felt fresh in a country debating issues such as gay marriage and war. "I was ecstatic," Wright says. "People felt about her as I did. Suddenly it looked like my insane obsession with Charlotte was going to pay off." The Pulitzer felt "like a triumphant end to a long struggle."
Wright recently learned that I Am My Own Wife will be the most performed play in America for 2006. His fear that little theaters might not have actors who could portray 34 characters was unfounded. "It's a huge role, but what's been so heartening is to go to small cities and find that every community has its beloved character actor who can step into the role," Wright says. "It's having a rich life across the country."
Charlotte never saw the play. She had died two years earlier, freeing the acolyte to become an artist.
The woman who emerges from a dilapidated screen door onto the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater elicits a gasp from the audience. Around her head she's wearing what looks like a black sweatshirt, her face framed by the neck hole, the arms twisted into a kind of drape behind her head. Around her hips is a garment that could be an upside-down skirt, fastened with safety pins over ripped hose. A girdle peeks out below the skirt. She looks like a demented nun.
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?
Grey Gardens opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on March 7, 2006. Despite mixed reviews, it sold out its entire limited engagement plus three extensions and garnered numerous awards. For the move to Broadway, Wright and his team had three months to revamp the show. "We cut five songs and rewrote almost the entire first act," Wright says. "We made significant changes to address what the critics had said."
The result is a thrilling evening of theater. Everything works. The songs are memorable and add to the story. The acting and singing, particularly of Ebersole in dual roles, is phenomenal. It's what Broadway—filled with revivals and musicals based on movies and television—needs now. It's entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, a bit perverse and ultimately tragic.
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The reviews reflected the critics' agreement. From Variety: "In less adventurous hands, Grey Gardens might merely have been a quirky musical about crazy cat ladies...But Wright and his collaborators...have taken their cue from the Maysles brothers in portraying their multifaceted subjects with depth and dignity. Their show is a haunting account of lives derailed, a textured depiction of the warring, often simultaneous desires to wound and heal that characterize mother-daughter relationships, and a witty celebration of two defiantly maverick personalities." The trade paper called Ebersole's performance "staggering...sure to become a benchmark of musical theater excellence." Newsday called it "daft, dark and deliciously derelict." Even Ben Brantley of the Times gave it a thumbs-up. Wright was ecstatic.
His move to more mainstream theater has been reflected in his domestic life. On opening night, he was surrounded by his family from Dallas and the family of his partner, David. They've lived together three years and recently signed a domestic partner commitment.
Wright has two new projects: the screenplay for a remake of Bunny Lake Is Missing, with Reese Witherspoon, and writing the book for Disney's The Little Mermaid, which will open on Broadway almost exactly a year after Grey Gardens. A guaranteed money machine, Mermaid could give the playwright something all settled couples long for: financial security.
"It's huge but scary," Wright says. Besides, he jokes, Ursula the Sea Witch could give the Marquis de Sade a run for his money.