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Theatre in Review: Twentieth Century Blues (Pershing Square Signature Center)

Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Ellen Parker. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It's appropriate that Susan Miller's new play begins at a TED Talk, for, in lieu of drama, it offers a symposium -- or, more to the point, a gabfest -- dealing with issues of import for progressive women of a certain age. The talk is presented by Danny, a successful photographer whose images have illuminated a variety of worlds, from Times Square to small-town council meetings. Her little-seen chef d'oeuvre is a series of photos of her three closest friends, taken once a year for forty years. When the Museum of Modern Art offers her a retrospective, she proposes skipping her better-known works for the friends series. She isn't surprised when the museum agrees only reluctantly. She is mildly flabbergasted when the ladies greet the idea with everything from ambivalence to outright opposition.

Most of Twentieth Century Blues unfolds in Danny's loft, where the ladies are assembling for their fortieth photo. They met in jail, four decades earlier, although the cause that put them there remains unspecified. ("Well, it was the seventies. You were no one if you didn't spend a night in jail," says Danny, by way of no explanation.) Today, they form a diverse group. Mac is a crusading journalist whose career is fading, along with newsprint. ("When they started talking about adjusting journalists' salaries based on views, like on YouTube, I knew it was the end of days," she says.) Gabby is a veterinarian and cancer survivor who, despite her husband's robust health, is "practicing to be a widow" so she'll be on top of things if/when it happens. And Sil is a real estate agent who, despite her seemingly glamorous job, struggles from paycheck to paycheck. In one of the play's least convincing revelations, Sil describes being so strapped for cash that she once rented out her apartment, living "like a squatter" in a brownstone for which she had the exclusive listing.

That's the sort of event that could provide the foundation for a play all by itself -- Do many high-end realtors end up in such desperate straits? -- but, like everything else in Twentieth Century Blues, it is brought up only to be dropped as the conversation shifts to another topic and another one after that. These include catastrophic illness, aging parents, assisted living, adoption, the juvenile justice system, ageism, the AARP and Big Pharma, substance abuse, harassment on the job, transgenderism, same-sex marriage, and those boring millennials. So much is brought up that, in a play running one hour and forty minutes, there's no time for anything to get more than the once-over-lightly treatment. And the issues that do get a few minutes' consideration don't fare much better. We learn that Danny and Mac had a brief romantic encounter that "turned" Mac. (She now lives with her female partner, while Danny went on to marry a man, unhappily.) Given the way the characters interact, it's hard to imagine there was ever anything between them. Sil stuns them all by announcing that she is getting plastic surgery, which cues a discussion, led by Danny, of the many ways in which women are culturally conditioned to avoid the fact of aging. It's a fair point, but Polly Draper (as Danny), who, at 62, has an unlined face and a figure marked by zero body fat may not the ideal vessel to communicate the depredations of age.

Miller occasionally lands some solid laughs. Gabby says, "There's a new test for dementia where you have to recognize famous people and then be able say what they're famous for." Sil, appalled, comments, "So, if you don't read People Magazine, you could be diagnosed as having lost your faculties." But the time spent on these superficial chats could have been better used to illuminate the disagreements between Danny and the others, who talk around their dislike for the museum show without really ever saying much of anything. In any case, whenever it looks like something approaching conflict is going to take place, Danny makes them all French toast, or they stage an impromptu dance to "You're All I Need to Get By," replacing drama with a calculated adorableness.

Emily Mann's direction can't really find a dramatic spine in all this girl talk ("Remember when we all had our periods at the same time?"), but at least she has filled out her cast with a fine lineup of familiar faces, each of them a pleasure to see again. Although hard to credit as someone staring 65 in the face, Draper once again reminds us of her abundant gifts, that singularly smoky voice adding an undercurrent of wit to everything she says. Ellen Parker, her face initially swathed in scarves to hide her plastic surgeon's pen marks, brings enough vulnerability to Sil to make plausible her tale of economic woe. As Mac, Franchelle Stewart Dorn pours another vodka and rumbles out another comment on the sad state of journalism. Kathryn Grody keeps Gabby's nutty pre-widowhood plan from seeming like a playwright's too-cute gambit. Beth Dixon also makes a couple of touching appearances as Danny's Alzheimer's-addled mother. Charles Socarides is affable and professional, as always, as Danny's adopted son, who figures in an awkwardly inserted and badly underwritten subplot about the search for his birth mother.

The production design is a pleasure, as well. Beowulf Boritt's loft set -- all big windows and white brick walls -- is sure to induce real estate envy in many audience members. (Boritt's projections also go a long way toward establishing Danny's bona fides as a great photographer.) Jeff Croiter's lighting fills the space with sunshine, completing the effect. Jennifer von Mayrhauser has dressed each character shrewdly, each detail speaking volumes about its wearer. Darron L. West's sound design includes some well-chosen musical selections.

Based on the audience reaction at the performance I attended, there's an audience -- many of them ladies in their sixties -- hungry for the kind of conversation featured in Twentieth Century Blues. But mentioning things isn't the same as exploring them. Miller's play seems mostly designed to make aging, disaffected liberals feel less alone in the age of Trump. But everybody is so busy singing the blues that there is no time for drama. -- David Barbour

(27 November 2017)

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