20th Century Blues – Through the Eyes of Women

Why is it that civilized humanity/Can make the world so wrong?/In this hurly-burly of insanity/Our dreams cannot last long… Noel Coward- “20th Century Blues”

Danny, Sil, Mac, and Gaby bonded in jail after a 1970s political demonstration. Very different women, they’ve loved and respected one another through decades of personal and social change. Once a year, Danny mounts a reunion during which the four friends catch up, eat, drink, and mark the occasion by her taking a photographic portrait.

An upcoming retrospective by The Museum of Modern Art causes the artist to reconsider the up-`til-now private photos. It’s her intention to make them central to the exhibition and an ancillary TED Talk about the passage of time among female intimates. “It became clear that their faces are the ones that should represent me.” Susan Miller’s play is bookended by Danny’s TED talk.

Franchelle Stewart Dorn and Polly Draper

Danny (Polly Draper, remember the groundbreaking Thirty Something?) is divorced. She has an apparently sterling, adopted son, Simon (an ingenuously, low key Charles Socarides), and a pleasant mother with dementia (the excellent Beth Dixon). The youngest, most attractive of the bunch (they’re all over 65), she carries condoms in her wallet hoping to “have sex again in my lifetime.”

Sil (Ellen Parker), a real estate agent, is hyper conscious of her appearance, fearing competition from younger looking professional peers. She comes in with her face wrapped in a scarf which, removed, apparently reveals a doctor’s markings indicating an upcoming facelift. (Notes: How did she walk out of his office without having washed her face? These markings are invisible from the audience.) “It’s a crowd-fed idea that your fortunes will improve if you look younger,” Mac comments. “Does it really matter anymore? Does anyone even look?” queries Gaby.

Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is a senior editor at a major newspaper, one presumes The New York Times. She came up through misogynistic ranks and remains passionate about her work, but has been forced to accept a buy-out. Thinking is sharp, words well chosen. Mac is a gay woman with a loving partner. She drinks too much, a practice she attributes to being “one of the boys” for so long.

Polly Draper and Beth Dixon

Gaby (Kathryn Grody) is a thoroughly untucked, heart-on-her-sleeve veterinarian. On this occasion, sure that husband David will die before her, and practicing for widowhood, she booked a hotel room instead of staying with Sil. “I love the amenities.” She’s brought them those little boxed shower caps. Gaby has also signed up to JDate “for the ads.”  (I don’t get this one.) “Women live longer just so they can finish their conversations.”

Because the portraits will now be shown, Sil, Mac, and Gaby are asked to sign releases. Much to Danny’s surprise, they each have issues with having what’s perceived as gradual disintegration held up to scrutiny. Specificity here is perceptive. She shows them the images which interestingly the women have never asked to view. Reactions are wonderfully authentic.

We hear about respective and collective history which includes some revelations, societal transformation, careers, and relationships. All of this is sifted through each individual’s perception of passing time, the way the women relate to and are viewed by the world.

Ellen Parker, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Polly Draper, Kathryn Brody

Playwright Susan Miller has the pulse of women at a certain age. Her characters are well drawn and not so obviously diverse that they feel like clichés. Humor is as spot on as insidious fears. We know these people. Caveat: Tangential storylines featuring Danny’s mother and son are undoubtedly meant to show still more aspects of women’s emotional, ties but feel tacked on.

Polly Draper is a bit self conscious at this stage of the game, especially with reactive expressions. (I saw a preview.) Ellen Parker is credible, Francelle Stewart Dorn pithy and sympathetic. The wonderful Kathryn Grody shines. She’s so appealing one wants to be her friend, but also real within Gaby’s surface whimsy.

Director Emily Mann stages with comfortable naturalism. A few too many exits when things get prickly, however, seem like a way not to have to handle unspeaking characters. Timing is realistic. Physical characteristics fit personalities.

Beowulf Boritt’s loft space seems right for Danny’s sensibilities. Eminently surprising projections employed at the show’s finish are inspired.

Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s Costume Design fits each character like second skin, though I’ve a feeling Sil would’ve sported more fashionable shoes.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Ellen Parker

20th Century Blues by Susan Miller
Directed by Emily Mann
The Pershing Square Signature Center 
416 West 42nd Street
Through January 28, 2018

About Alix Cohen (847 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.