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The Mysteries of Grey Gardens

Before the Dresser can make any cogent remarks about Studio Theatre of Washington, DC's production of the Tony award-winning musical Grey Gardens with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, she needs to reconstruct why she wanted to see this documentary-turned-Broadway-hit. GGLittleEdie.jpg


Reason number one: she is favorably familiar with some of the operatic libretti by Michael Korie and most recently The Grapes of Wrath.

Reason number two: every political family in the public limelight has their back rooms of relatives who embarrass them. This was the case for the former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy whose aunt and cousin are the eccentric protagonists of Grey Gardens. As the United States moves closer to the day when President-elect Barack Obama moves into the White House, the issue of a problematic relative (a Kenyan aunt in trouble with the U.S. Immigration Service) has already surfaced. So understanding one political family's scandal often informs another's.

Reason number three: The show got ten Tony nominations, including Best Musical. The story has a life of its own. Besides being based on the film documentary, there are also two plays inspired by the story--Little Edie & the Marble Faun and A Few Small Repairs--as well as a film made for HBO by the same name. Furthermore, fans who saw the Broadway production multiple times were known to dress up in odd costumes.


Like the oddball film Running with Scissors, the story of Grey Gardens involves a would-be artist (poet in Scissors; singer in Gardens) who creates problems for her child. In both Scissors and Gardens, the man of the house quickly steps out of the picture. Both works are based on the lives of real people. The antics of real people are often more puzzling than fictitious characters and the Dresser likes to think about the complexity of puzzling characters.

The two-act musical with a prologue is set at the East Hampton estate known as Grey Gardens. The prologue and second act take place in 1973 and the first act, in 1941. The hinging event is an engagement party for Little Edie Beale and her fiancé Joseph Kennedy, Jr., the older brother of the U.S. president-to-be John F. Kennedy. At the party is prepubescent Jacqueline Bouvier and her younger sister Lee. The party is spoiled by the big Edie's intention to use the party guests as an audience for her singing performance, but worse occurs when Edie scares off Joe Kennedy either as a way to protect her daughter from Joe's chauvinism or because she (the mother) is jealous of her daughter's good fortune. The second act reveals an aged mother and daughter living together with an uncounted but impossibly large population of cats and raccoons among the ruins of the once splendid estate.


The music like any popular Broadway musical is catchy and even infectious, but in that old way of musicals of the 1930s and '40s. Especially songs like "The Revolutionary Costume." By act II, Little Edie has morphed from a debutante sought by the most powerful men in the United States (other suitors were Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty) to a whacky over-the-hill spinster who thinks wearing her skirts upside down (waistband at the knees, if you please, with the hem gathered up and tied at the waist) is a trendsetting revolution in fashion. GreyGardensCostume.jpgThe lyrics compliment the perky song. Here's a small snatch of Little Edie's fashion philosophy from this song: "The best kind of clothes for a protest pose is this ensemble of pantyhose, pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt that doubles as a cape." Part of this number involves spoken dialogue such as this repartee about East Hampton, "They can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday. It's a mean, nasty Republican town." But hey! Although Jackie and Lee came back in real life to save their relatives from being thrown out of their house (Jackie put $25,000 into the house for repairs) for health code violations, the democratic relatives were more concerned about political embarrassment than the well being of their aunt and cousin. (And the Bouvier sisters were not seen or spoken about in Act II.)


Barbara Walsh who plays Little Edie in the Prologue and the second act, but takes the role of big Edie in Act I, carries the show as the actress must in this play. She is convincing as the debutante's annoying mother who is trying to steal the attention away from her blonde daughter (played by Jenna Sokolowski). In short, Walsh covers the craziest roles with convincing equanimity. To someone like the Dresser whose mother for many decades could wear the Dresser's clothes and look good in them, having the same actress play the younger mother and later play the ageing daughter presented that torturous nightmare that elicits from the Dresser--Oh, my God, don't let me turn into my mother!

ggshowshotweb.jpgBarbara Broughton plays big Edie in her seniority in the way the Dresser is accustomed to seeing performances by Vanessa Redgrave. Yes, big Edie is whacky but her whacky is more eccentric than crazy. Besides, she plays the old mother who still likes to sing, but she doesn't wear her clothes upside down. The song "Jerry Likes My Corn" that the old mother sings to a young man who comes to visit is both endearing and, well, corny.

In the intimate space of Studio's Metheny Theatre, this is the perfect musical to take a grown up family to, including the grands and the greats. It is entertaining without being controversial. It's great fun to see the budding Jackie Bouvier soon-to-be one-half of the Camelot presidential couple (Jackie and Jack Kennedy) as a little girl. Actually, Jackie's presence in Grey Gardens provides a nostalgic vibration to the young Obama family. So many people want to be at the Obama inauguration, just like my mother did and she made a fancy gown and went to one of the Kennedy inauguration balls.

The Dresser, however, found the clever lyrics and formulaic music of Grey Gardens cloying after a whole evening of this. She wanted to know why the aged Little Edie reputedly was bald. The audience sees her wearing turbans that not only cover her scalp but also her neck. (Supposedly these turbans were fashioned from Little Edie's sweaters.) A little sleuthing on the Internet turned up an essay that suggested at some point in her days sequestered at Grey Gardens with her ailing mother, Little Edie set fire to her hair. At only one point, the character Little Edie slips and says her estranged father wanted to have her committed. Committed is that polite way in America of saying the person needs to be put into an institution for the insane. Something the Dresser remembers was whispered about her own mother.

Something else that bothered the Dresser as she was watching the show come to its close was the character Jerry, the teenage handyman who visits the old mother. What the Dresser didn't realize during the show was that Matthew Stucky played both Jerry and Joe Kennedy, Jr. Little Edie worries that Jerry will move into the house and replace her. For some reason unknown to us, Little Edie calls Jerry The Marble Faun, after Nathaniel Hawthorne's strange romantic novel. The Dresser kept wondering when Jerry was going to take advantage of the two women, but that doesn't happen and the women don't seem to be preying on him either. Another search on the Internet turned up an interview with Jerry Torre who was the real-life handyman at Grey Gardens. It turns out Jerry is gay.

And so what's the verdict? The Dresser liked Running with Scissors better than Grey Gardens. Scissors was a tougher look at a dysfunctional parent-child relationship.

In the poem "What Drove Me into Math," Marion Deutsche Cohen, author of Crossing the Equal Sign, explores the subject of mystery in the context of domesticity. If Little Edie Beale had been less dependent on her mother, why she might have outgrown the game of dress up and learned how to multiply.


What drove me into math
was not Fermat's last.
I preferred the factoring of the difference of two squares.
And cantor's stretched-out one-dimensional lace.
Also, the center of a circle is inside the circle.

What drove me into math
was not the Mystery of the Unknown
but the mystery of the known.

Other early influences:
the point of light just happening to coincide with the only visible
....... corner of our living room
those dark-red shapes when you close your eyes tight
and that spot, that nightmare
of many bloody colors.

by Marion Deutsche Cohen
published in Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, edited by Sarah Glaz & JoAnne Growney

Copyright © 2008 Marion Deutsche Cohen

Photos by Scott Suchman


Comments (3)

Oh that Dresser's mother Rona is immortal and little did R know she would be a theatrical figure someday but we are the better for it! Interesting show and eccentricities tell us not to be afraid in writing for theater.

JoAnne Growney:

I have been on the fence about seeing Grey Gardens .. . and I loved reading your comments about it. Moreover, I was pleased to see mention of STRANGE ATTRACTORS and Marion Cohen.

Max Kern:

Loved reading your review of Grey Gardens. It made me think of why I
write. Some of us live it and some of us write about it, but it's all
a celebration of eccentricity.

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