Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) and her cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884 – 1980) were exact contemporaries and members of an elite American family. Yet, despite their similar backgrounds, the two were exact opposites in many ways. One was beautiful, a politically conservative fashion plate and social arbiter while the other was not at all pretty, but, defying her background, a liberal who always believed in public service with a strong sense of morality.
Ellen Abrams’ new play Eleanor and Alice – Conversations Between Two Remarkable Roosevelts explores their superficial courtesies in a series of conversations spanning 1904 until 1962, agreeable conversations that reveal an often disagreeable, if not downright adversarial relationship.
Scenic designer Frank J. Oliva has divided the stage at Urban Stages into two discrete areas, one representing the Roosevelt estate, Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and the other Eleanor Roosevelt’s charmingly simple home, Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York. Kyle Artone’s costumes are simple representations of the two women as they travel their different paths through history.
In the first scene—1904—Alice is late, rushing down the aisle to join a slightly impatient Eleanor at Sagamore. The two gossip about Alice’s dad (and Eleanor’s uncle), Theodore Roosevelt. They make light of President McKinley’s assassination, but also reveal one of the themes of this two-hander: how Teddy R. is always comparing Alice unfavorably to his adored niece. Teddy R. objected to his daughter’s social flittering, passion for dressing well and getting her name in the newspapers.
To Alice’s delight, Eleanor announces her plans to marry her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Hyde Park Roosevelts—a major distinction amongst the Roosevelts.
By 1920, Alice attacks FDR’s integrity and Eleanor fights back. Alice and her brother, Ted Jr., were hell bent on keeping FDR from being elected vice president much to Eleanor’s chagrin. By 1922, Franklin has had his polio diagnosis. 1924 brings the Teapot Dome scandal which Alice as a Republican plays down and Eleanor savors as a Democrat. In 1933, FDR has been elected president much to Alice’s disgust.
And so it goes down through all the history these two women lived through, including personal losses, professional triumphs—as in Eleanor’s major achievement of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the tragic losses of World War II.
Abrams deftly weaves the personal lives of these two remarkable women with the events happening around them. Eleanor and Alice never feels like a history lesson.
Eleanor and Alice are portrayed by two fine actresses: as Eleanor, the Tony Award-winning Trezana Beverley and as Alice, the Drama Desk Award- winner Mary Bacon. At the performance under review, the two carried and referred to their scripts, making it difficult to judge how this duet will eventually play and equally difficult to judge director Frances Hill’s contributions.
Bacon, whose character is the more flamboyant of the two, manages to communicate Alice’s command of her social and political world while Beverley is more tentative because of her attachment to the script and hasn’t quite managed to communicate Eleanor’s growing strength and independence, let alone her unique vocal cadences.
Eleanor and Alice needs more assured performances but is still a potent portrait of two fascinating American women.
Eleanor and Alice: Conversations Between Two Remarkable Roosevelts (through December 4, 2022)
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.urbanstages.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission