Correction to This Article
-- A Feb. 27 Weekend article incorrectly identified the Washington theater that recently staged the play "Grey Gardens." The venue was the Studio Theatre.

Ganymede Revives Short-Lived Stage Act of 'Little Edie' Beale

Edith "Little Edie" Beale, pictured in 1977. (By Ron Lieberman)
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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

It was late 1977 when theater producer Gerald Duval got a call from a manager at the New York cabaret Reno Sweeney.

"There's a gal in here for an audition," Duval remembers being told. "She's got a skirt on her head, and she's fallen off the stage twice."

And her name was Edith Beale.

Book her, Duval told the manager.

People would pay, he knew, for a chance to see "Little Edie" -- the peculiar cousin of Jackie Kennedy and younger half of the mother-daughter duo made famous by the documentary "Grey Gardens" -- in person.

"I frankly just thought it would be a freak show," Duval recalls. "But I got captivated just immediately upon meeting her. It became clear that she was just totally authentic and eccentric and not mad at all."

Beale needed work to pay taxes on Grey Gardens, the Hamptons mansion memorialized in the documentary and later in the play, most recently produced at Signature Theatre. So Duval helped her cook up an act combining standard songs and an audience Q&A. It ran for exactly eight performances early in 1978.

Now, 31 years later, Duval is bringing Little Edie's show back to life.

"After the Garden: Edith Beale Live at Reno Sweeney," produced by Ganymede Arts, is a re-creation of those eight performances, which were panned by critics but live large in the annals of Edie Beale lore.

Duval, 67, who moved to Washington six years ago, wrote the script from memory, as there are no known recordings of Beale's nights at Reno Sweeney. And he had always intended to have a woman play Beale. But then he met Jeffrey Johnson, Ganymede's artistic director, who is best known for his drag character Special Agent Galactica.

Duval happened to be watching one of Johnson's Galactica performances and recalls thinking, "My God, he could do Edie Beale."

Johnson, 40, was equally obsessed with the Beales. He rented the documentary a few years ago "and watched it 11 times in one weekend," he says. He later dove into research on Edie, including her Reno Sweeney act, and decided to write a play about the period.

"So it was kind of odd when Gerald walked in and said, 'I want you to read this script.' And I was like, 'Oh, wow. You wrote the play I wanted to write,' " Johnson says.

Johnson and Duval wanted a nontraditional performance space for the original show and, after searching, settled on the back room of Miss Pixie's Furnishings and Whatnot on 14th Street NW. Whatever old chandeliers and chaise longues the secondhand store brings in that week will be used as the show's backdrop.

And rather than just limit the show to a strict reenactment of the Reno Sweeney performances, Duval is using the opportunity to tell the rest of the story of the idiosyncratic woman who became his friend.

"I want [the audience] to experience the authentic, vibrant experience of being with Edie Beale," he says.

After the Garden: Edith Beale Live at Reno Sweeney Miss Pixie's Backroom Palace, 1625 14th St. NW 202-390-1502; Thursday-March 29. $25.

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