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20th Century Blues

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 26, 2017


Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody, Franchelle Stewart Dorn,
and Ellen Parker
Photo by Joan Marcus

Should someone ask where you were when you first heard the shocking news "on the day of," what pops immediately into your head? If you are instantly whooshed back to a certain infamous date in November of 1963, then I hereby certify you as the perfect audience for the smart, funny, and touching ode to friendship and aging that is Susan Miller's 20th Century Blues. But even if you don't immediately pick up on all of the references shared by the quartet of baby boomers on stage, it's hard to imagine anyone who would be immune to the love that infuses this first-rate, terrifically-acted production at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Through thick and thin, four women with a shared history going back four decades gather annually at the loft apartment (perfectly rendered through Beowulf Boritt's set design) of one of their number, Danny (Polly Draper). Danny is a professional photographer who has been taking group portraits of the other three without fail ever since they first met in jail when all of them were arrested at a protest. ("Well, it was the seventies," Danny explains during her TED Talk that serves as a frame for the show). For all these years, the photos were shared only among the group, but now Danny wants to display them as part of a retrospective exhibit of her work planned for New York's Museum of Modern Art. Amid the annual catching-up and sharing of food and drink, this unexpected twist on their collective privacy lingers in the air. Will the women sign the legal releases that will allow the many years of images marking the not-always-kind progression of time to be put out there for strangers to see?

One who is most resistant to the idea is Sil (Ellen Parker), a real estate broker who is struggling to survive in a highly competitive and ageist work environment. The others start to tease her because is about to undergo a facelift, until she reveals how financially difficult things have been for her ever since a messy divorce. For Sil, "just seeing the photograph from that year puts me back there. Only it's not a place I want to be."

All four women, who are in their 60s, are surprised at how the swiftly flying years have caught them off guard. Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), who has had to fight all of her life as an African American woman, a lesbian, and a player in the man's world of professional journalism, puts it most succinctly: "One day I'm dancing all over the house in my little bikini underpants and socks. And then, sometime in the middle of the afternoon, it happens. Just like that. I'm old."

The fourth member of the group is the perpetual optimist, Gabby (Kathryn Grody). Invariably kind to everyone, she is a veterinarian who is available to take calls about her beloved animals at any time. She is also quirky and quite funny, even though she has had to deal with breast cancer and is so afraid of outliving her still-quite-healthy husband that she has taken to staying by herself at a hotel because she is "in training for widowhood."

One of the real strengths of the play is how the playwright allows each of the women the time and space to tell her own story. There is some tension in the room regarding the proposed exhibition, but more significant is the deeply entrenched well of trust, love and support among the group. What they share is more than friendship; it is their collective memory and experiences as part of their boomer cohort. They are, as Danny puts it, "my timetables of history."

Perhaps 20th Century Blues is a bit overstuffed with plot, especially with the additional appearances of Danny's darling mother (Beth Dixon), who suffers from dementia, and Danny's adopted son (Charles Socarides), who has been searching for his biological mother. Yet the writing and the performances under Emily Mann's warm direction are so strong that only a real curmudgeon would quibble. There simply is not a misstep in the entire evening, and you are likely to leave the theater deeply moved by the experience, whether are not you count yourself among those of a "certain age" when you most treasure your time with those nearest and dearest to you.


20th Century Blues
Through January 28
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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