A series of eight fictionalized face-to-face conversations between real-life first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, spanning the years 1904-62, is the format for Ellen Abrams’ Eleanor and Alice, now playing an encore engagement at Urban Stages following its world premiere there in November 2022, and its pandemic-time presentation as an audio play in 2021. Though the theme is of both historical interest and current relevance in our divided country – FDR’s First Lady Eleanor was a devoted Democrat committed to public service and Teddy’s eldest daughter Alice a staunch and supercilious Republican socialite, who were most often at odds – the problematic production is less compelling than its subject would warrant.
Directed by Frances Hill, the two-hander stars the original 2022 cast of Trezana Beverley as Eleanor (1884-1962) and Mary Bacon as Alice (1884-1980), who portray the women, both born in the same year, from the ages of twenty to 78. The first four scenes are set at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home at Oyster Bay on Long Island, in the years 1904, 1920, 1922, and 1924; scenes 5-8 take place at Val-Kill, Eleanor’s cottage on the FDR estate in Hyde Park, in 1933, 1944, 1957, and 1962.
Despite the changes in their authentic period-style costumes (by Gail Cooper-Hecht), it defies credibility to see the same mature actresses portraying the characters across six decades; for me, the production would have been more believable with the casting of two different pairs of performers as the younger, and the older, cousins (this is not intended as a sexist or agist criticism, just an observation that people do change physically and visibly with the passage of time). And the already small stage, here divided into two distinctive areas – with white wicker garden furniture and a potted Areca palm representing Sagamore Hill on the left and an office desk and chairs for Val-Kill on the right (scenic design by Jaime Terazzino and Madeleine Burrow) – prohibits much action or movement, suggesting to me that the conversational work would have been more successful and engaging in its earlier incarnation as an audio play.
An edited audio version would also alleviate the recurrent problem of Beverley’s halting delivery and struggle with forgotten lines, punctuated by extended moments of silence, unsure stuttering, and Bacon’s attempted prompts at the performance I attended. But Beverley and Bacon do succeed in relaying the generally contrasting demeanors and perspectives of their characters, with Alice depicted as more feisty, confrontational, and outspoken, and Eleanor as softer, kinder, and more compassionate (though less confident, as a result of her lack of surety with the dialogue).
Throughout their visits with one another, they debate their divergent attitudes toward life, argue over their diametrically opposed political leanings and familial loyalties, discuss their relationships with their philandering husbands (to whom they both remained married) and their own extramarital affairs (including brief mention of Eleanor’s longtime companion Lorena Hickok), empathize over the deaths of their daughters, share their contrasting opinions on the most important issues of the times – from the Teapot Dome scandal and WWII to racial equality and human rights – and their agreement on the need for increasing the status of women. In so doing, the well-researched script highlights the impact, influence, and accomplishments of these well-connected cousins.
The historical content of the show is supplemented by Kim T. Sharp’s integral video projections, seen between the segments on a central screen on the back wall. They not only provide the dates of the scenes, but also vintage photos, significant newspaper headlines of the eras, and telling quotes from the two women, which enrich the story, evince its basis in factual material, provide more visual interest for the audience, and succinctly express the beliefs that drive Eleanor and Alice.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, without intermission.