Grey Gardens Northlight Theatre, Well Next Theatre company

Awomen’s studies professor I knew used to give her new students a simple assignment: interview your mother and write a brief biography of her. The exercise could be wrenching. Some students felt guilty learning about the careers their mothers surrendered so they could rear them instead. But for many women it was acknowledging that their mothers had lives independent of them—and admitting that they were independent of their mothers—that was traumatic, as if growing up were a betrayal.

Two recent Broadway hits—both based on true stories and currently receiving local productions—attempt to plumb the depths of pathologically interdependent mother-daughter bonds. In Grey Gardens, middle-aged former socialite Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale gets stuck caring for her mother in a crumbling East Hampton mansion. In Well, playwright Lisa Kron recounts her efforts to separate from a hypochondriacal mother intent on imposing her crippling “allergies” on her. Given the poignancy of the issues, you might expect two engrossing evenings. But neither show offers much emotional truth, let alone interesting storytelling.

Grey Gardens is a musical based on Albert and David Maysles’s 1975 documentary of the same name. The brothers spent five weeks with Little Edie and her mother, Edith, in the raccoon-infested, urine-soaked home where they’d once hobnobbed with Kennedys and Gettys, and their film is both enthralling and disturbing. As the camera rolls, bedridden, 79-year-old Edith—often wearing only a towel—alternately claws and salves the emotional wounds of 58-year-old Little Edie, whose paranoid divorce from reality suggests a profound psychosis.

You’d be hard-pressed to find material less suited to the American musical stage, with its penchant for plucky optimism and emotional schematics. The creative team of Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), and Michael Korie (lyrics) tries to make it work by creating a backstory in the first act. It’s 1941, and Edith is about to throw a party to celebrate Little Edie’s engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (a liaison Little Edie claimed later in life, “for which,” a 2006 New York Times story noted, “there is actually a slight bit of historical evidence”). Edith’s father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier, tries to maintain old-world decorum while Edith, an aspiring soprano, ignores her philandering husband and dotes on her self-hating gay accompanist. Little Edie is caught in the cross fire when mom tries to turn the party into a recital—a maneuver that’s driven suitors away in the past. Throughout the hour-long scene, written and scored in period style, Edith insists that all she and her daughter need is each other.

In B.J. Jones’s handsome, well-paced Northlight Theatre production, it’s a pleasant enough scene, with clever ersatz Ivor Novello tunes weaving in and out of pedestrian dialogue. Wright, Frankel, and Korie seem content to spend the better part of the hour putting the characters’ quirks on exhibit, but when Hollis Resnik’s Edith and Tempe Thomas’s Little Edie finally get the chance to go at each other, they supply a climax of satisfying emotional and musical complexity.

In act two, however, the authors try to re-create the documentary onstage, stranding mother and daughter in the now-decrepit house where they have absolutely nothing to do. While Edith and Little Edie’s stasis communicates a creepy fascination on film, here it’s just dull. Frankel and Korie interject a few songs—even production numbers—that seem about as natural as olives in Jell-O, and the occasional underscoring from a peppy offstage band makes tragic figures seem merely quirky and quaint.

Most problematic, the first act’s depiction of a smothering, emotionally manipulative mother and her insecure daughter fails to justify the portrait of utter collapse in act two. What’s missing is the terrifying grip of mental illness. Without that, the musical ends up a watered-down simulation of lives that have already been exploited enough.

At least Grey Gardens has pretty music. It’s hard to find anything to recommend Well, Lisa Kron’s simplistic, self-involved mess of a play. On Broadway, Kron herself narrated the parallel stories of her mother, Ann, a community activist in 1970s Lansing, Michigan, and her own efforts to escape Ann’s infectious hypochondria—while an actress playing Ann sat to one side of the stage, continually interrupting. With Kron telling her own stories, Well may have generated some sense of authenticity. But with another actor in the role—even one as appealing as Lia D. Mortensen—Next Theatre’s 90-minute production feels like a college playwriting exercise.

The onstage Lisa coaxes four actors to reenact scenes from her life, focusing either on Ann’s efforts to form a neighborhood association or her own struggle to cure herself of the allergies Ann insisted she had despite the complete absence of any symptoms. But the scenes are so sketchy and broad—problems director Damon Kiely amplifies by pushing his cast to caricature—that neither story is presented credibly or coherently. And Ann’s repeated intrusions, which cause the actors to step out of character and play “themselves,” come across as forced metatheatrical contrivances.

The evening culminates in Kron’s tearful admission that she’s both furious at Ann and guilty about her anger. Had she started her play there she might have explored issues that actually resonate.v

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