The Play, the Book and the Restaurant

1.  The Play.  “Grey Gardens”, a musical about Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, who lived together for many years in an estate in The Hamptons with 50+ cats, and no money and no maintenance, until the authorities threatened to condemn the house.  Eventually, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill paid for repairs, Big Edie died, after which Little Edie sold the house (to Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and Sally Quinn), and lived another 25 years.  A documentary movie was made in the 1970s, which became a cult film, and in 2006 a musical opened in New York, and played for about a year to a good reviews and many Tony nominations.  The musical is now being performed at Washington’s Studio Theatre.

A strange topic for a musical, you might say.  Indeed it is, I thought, and I found it one of the worst theater nights of recent memory.  In fact, the reviews in the Washington press were not bad, which made it doubly disappointing.

I am not going to fault the actors, or the directors, or the musicians.  Perhaps they could have done more with the script, but I don’t think that anything can save the play, irrespective of what the reviewers think.

There are two acts.  In the first act, little Edie is engaged to Joe Kennedy (Jack’s eldest brother) who calls off the engagement before the big formal announcement gala because her mother tells Joe that his fiance has a past.  At this time, they are living in splendor, although father Beale is about to jump ship and run away to get a Mexican divorce.  In the second act, thirty years have passed, and mother and daughter are torturing each other in the ruins of their once elegant home.

The second act apparently follows the documentary film fairly well, while the first action is largely fiction.  There was apparently no engagement to Joe Kennedy, and the party didn’t happen.  Little Edie, it seems, has always had a wild imagination.

I knew that this show was not to be to my liking when I heard an early rhyme, with Big Edie telling the butler to “put the chafing dishes out on the ledge, as soon as the gardeners trim the hedge”, or something close to that.  And it went steadily so far down hill, that one of the big songs in the second act has Big Edie talking about the young man who comes to visit her and keep her company at times, and for whom she makes corn on the cob.  The song is called “Jerry Likes My Corn”.

Give me a break.

The Book.  The book is entitled The Blood of His Servants, written by Malcolm C. McPherson and published about 25 years ago.  It is a book about the holocaust and its aftermath, but the story it tells is different from most, and instructive.

The central character, Pieter Menten, was a somewhat black sheep of a wealthy Dutch family, who is sent to southern Poland during the late 1920s to establish a branch of the family business.  His task is mainly to buy raw materials.  He winds up in a small town, with a largely Jewish population, and is the most sophisticated person ever to spend considerable time there.  He is tall, suave, handsome, educated, and personable.  He becomes friendly with many Jewish families in the town; he acts as a mentor to some of the Jewish young people, inspiring them and broadening their horizons.

But conditions for Jews in Poland are growing rougher, and one young man from the village, Bibi Krumholz, with the ambition to be a journalist, gets the opportunity to go to school for one year in Palestine.  He never returns to Poland.

In 1939, of course, Poland is invaded by Germany.  In 1941, there is a massacre in the village, and virtually all of the Jews are shot, having first been required to dig their own graves.  A few escape, and after the war ends, one of the escapees contacts Krumholz in Palestine, tells him what happened to his family and the others in 1941, informing him that Pieter Menten, by then a member of the German SS, was the murderer.

After the war, Menten is tried and given a relatively light war crimes sentence for conspiring with the enemy.  A small crime, it seems. Nothing about murder is known to the prosecutors.  In the meantime, Menten, because of his family money, and because after the Jews were murdered under his direction, he stole their jewelry, art work and other valuables, became one of the wealthiest men in Holland, and a world class collector of art.

Krumholz, now an Israeli journalist, decides that Menten must be brought to justice and be tried for the murders, but needs to marshall the evidence, and get the prosecutors in the Netherlands to believe him and to get them to go beyond their fear of attacking someone so prominent (and litigious) and their desire to let sleeping dogs lie and to have the past to stay in the past.

It is the story of the pursuit of Krumholz, the actions of the various European governments, police departments and journalists, the development of witnesses and evidence, the years of frustration, and the eventual trials that led to a conviction when Menten was 80 years old and resulted in an 8 year prison sentence.

The book is fact, not fiction.  It casts a different light on post-Holocaust Europe.  How many people had collaborated (not surprising when you think about it).  How the nature of their collaboration varied from the banal to the most criminal.  How many collaborators never lost a beat in picking up their civilian lives and careers. How facts were had to prove, and denials easy to accept.  How the European countries were overwhelmed by the potential number of cases, and had to carefully pick and choose.  And how, with dogged determination, case by case, facts would come to light.

The Restaurant.  The Commissary is a new restaurant on P Street, down the block from the Studio, which is at 14th and P.  Or actually it is a remodeled and renamed restaurant, with a different atmosphere from its “Latin-fusion” predecessor, which had never achieved real popularity.  I liked the Commissary, and it was quite busy early on a Saturday night.  And the prices are modest – we had a drink, an appetizer, a main course, and (the equivalent of) one-half of a cup of coffee for less than $30 per person.  That is pretty hard to beat.


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