The strange and fascinating world of 'Grey Gardens' captured in musical opening Friday at Harvester 56

Jun 8, 2017

Edith Bouvier Beale once famously said, "It could have been me instead of Jackie Kennedy in the White House."

It's not that Beale was ever courted by Jack Kennedy, but she was engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr., the young man his father groomed to eventually become president before he was killed in World War II.

We meet a young and potentially betrothed Joe Jr. in G'rey Gardens, The Musical," being staged this weekend and next by Batavia Players at the Harvest 56 Theater.

Society and history might have forgotten the Beales except that two, young, aspiring documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles happened across Edith Bouvier Beale, known as "Little Edie," and her mother, "Big Edie," living alone, mostly confined to a single room, of their once-majestic East Hampton mansion in 1975.

The Maysles brothers secured permission to show up at the mansion, known as Grey Gardens, and film whatever they saw. In an age before reality TV, the Beale women were unselfconscious and uninhibited in letting their lives be documented, with all of their odd, besotted and eccentric peculiarities.

The documentary was critically acclaimed in 1976 but faded into near oblivion, except as a cult favorite, until resurrected in the age of Netflix and 500-channel cable boxes. That led to a feature film, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and finally a hit Broadway musical.

The Batavia Players are presenting one of the first off-Broadway performances.

"Grey Gardens has been a unique kind of cult following, you know -- Americana story, for quite a few years," said Pat Burk, who is producing and directing the show. "I know that that's a lot of adjectives to describe it, but I don't know how else to describe it.

"The reason why Batavian Players wanted to do it was because we have always looked for sort of new and original things that can be done in the community that normally would not be done by another theater company," Burk added. "It just seemed like the right fit and I knew I had the perfect cast and I was kind of like stalking them for a little while to make sure that I had the right cast for the show."

We spoke with Burk during a taping of the WBTA radio show "Genesee Life," which is normally hosted by Lucine Kauffman. Kauffman is an avid fan of Grey Gardens, and really, a kind of subject-area expert on the documentary. Since she couldn't interview herself, The Batavian stepped as guest host (you can hear the full broadcast on WBTA's website).

"It was really just by accident (that I found the documentary)," Kauffman said. "I was browsing through Netflix -- this had to have been at least five years ago -- and I love documentaries, so I was looking to the documentary section and came across 'Grey Gardens.' I thought 'oh this sounds interesting' and watched it and just fell in love with the movie and the characters."

Like many Grey Gardens fans, Kauffman has delved deeper into the background and history of the Bouviers and the Beales and the lives of Edith and Edie, so when she heard Batavia Players was going to stage the musical, she certainly wanted to audition for the part, and in fact Burk already had her in mind to play Edith in the second act.

"She was a Bohemian and she was an artist -- she wanted to sing," Kauffman said. "She did sing in at parties. She did give some concerts, smaller concerts.

"We take for granted," Kauffman added, "that the Kennedys were a very prominent Catholic family and that it was the WASPS, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were the ones who were dominating the social scene. And Phalen (Beale, husband of Edith and an uncle to Jackie), and I think Major Bouvier, to an extent, wanted to fit in with that WASP culture, and so Phalen was very conservative socially. He did not want his wife out singing in public and giving concerts. He thought she should act like a reserved society matron. She fought against that.

"When they bought Grey Gardens -- when they first married they lived in Manhattan -- when they bought Grey Gardens out on Long Island he basically just let her give recitals in the home for some of her friends. I think it broke her heart because I think she really thought she could have been a star."

The star of the documentary is, perhaps, Little Edie, the once-gorgeous, former '40s-era debutante who may have been engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr., who turned down a proposal from J. Paul Getty, and probably dated Howard Hughes. By the 1970s, in a dilapidated mansion, she seems a little touched.

"She went out with the creme de la creme of the most eligible bachelors," Kauffman said. "She was a debutante. She was absolutely gorgeous. She did some modeling."

The musical's two acts are set in better times and decaying times, first when the Beales still had some money, were still young and living the life of high society, and then in the second act Edith and Edie are living with a motley bunch of cats and scavaging raccoons. The first act is largely fictional, providing a backdrop to how the family was torn apart, and the second act cuts closer to the Beales' life as revealed by Maysles brothers.

One of the fascinating turns of the documentary is the creative ways Edie wears clothes, turning mundane garments into fashion statements, always wearing a turban or head scarf of some sort, adorned with a favorite brooch.

That came about, it seems, Kauffman said, because the Beales had no money left, or not much of it. Major Bouvier had cut his daughter Edith from the will, and once Edith and Phalen divorced, Phalen didn't pay alimony, he just left her the mansion and a small stipend.

"So imagine you have this house, this big mansion, and you have no money for upkeep or maintenance. You don't have money to go out and buy new clothing or new furniture," Kauffman said. "You see the decay. Everything is pretty much exactly the way it was but decayed, and as far as the clothing choices, I think she (Little Edie) just made do with what she had. You know she might have had this old brown skirt from the '40s and she just turned it upside down and pinned a brooch to it. She wanted to create a new fashion out of what she had."

The first performance is Friday at 7:30 p.m. There are also shows Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., then again the following weekend with shows on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students.

The cast is:

Edith Bouvier Beale (Act 1 Prologue/Act 2) -- Lucine Kauffman
Edith Bouvier Beale (Act 1) /Edie Beale (Act 2) -- Jennifer Neroni-Trupo
“Young” Edie Beale (Act1) -- Kristin Gelia
George Gould Strong-- Dylan Tomas Kastel
Jackie Bouvier -- Kathryn Fitzpatrick
Lee Bouvier -- Leigh Le Fevre
Brooks Jr/Sr. -- Gregory Munroe
Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. -- Colin Fleming
Major Bouvier -- James Barcomb
Jerry -- Jonah Bower
Norman Vincent Peale -- Jim Bauer
Musicians: Cindy Baldwin, Bob Chaplin, Tristan Korzelius, Pamela Wentworth, Kathy White, Melzie Case.

 

By Howard B. Owens, The Batavian