Danny, Sil, Mac and Bess have had a reunion once a year for the last 40 years since they met in a lockup back in the 1970’s after a political protest. Danny, a professional photographer, has been recording their faces without make up each year. Now that she has reached a level of fame, she is being given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and has chosen to display these so-far unseen photographs of her friends. However, she needs their permission and one last photo shoot to complete the series.
Unfortunately, Sil, a real estate broker and the least successful of the women, is uncomfortable with this request. About to get a face lift, she does not want to be seen in decline as the photos of past 40 years unsurprisingly recall. As the women debate whether to let Danny photograph them one last time, they examine their lives over the years: their marriages and divorces, their careers, their children, their illnesses, and world events that touched their lives.
Each of them is coping with a major problem: Aside from having to choose the photos for her show, Danny is responsible for Bess, her 91-year-old mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and has never adjusted to the senior facility she lives in. Mac, an African American lesbian and an investigative journalist is about to be downsized and has to transition into a new stage of her life. Gabby, a veterinarian and happily married to David, worries about becoming a widow and having to live alone. And Sil is having trouble making ends meet as an older woman in a field in which there are too many unsold condominiums.
As the women reminisce about their shared memories and the paths their lives have taken, they can’t get away from the toll that the years have taken. Ageing in all its different facets is behind their discussion. When Simon, Danny’s adopted son shows up with his grandmother Bess, they have before them an example of what their future might hold. The play and its characters are always charming but there are no dramatic fireworks or any new words of wisdom that we haven’t heard before. Everything the women say is true – but that is the problem: none of it comes as any surprise.
The play is framed both at the beginning and the end by Danny’s TED talk on her career in photography four months after the planned final photo shoot of her friends. There is also a scene of the still vital Bess (played beautifully by Beth Dixon) in her assisted living facility. To some extent, the other women aside from Bess are underwritten or the author is using a sort of shorthand to suggest more than she actually puts on stage as the characters never seem to be greater than the sum of their character traits.
Franchelle Stewart Dorn is feisty as the black lesbian journalist negotiating a path in a man’s world in a field rapidly being displaced by the internet. Kathryn Grody is amusing as the nearly eccentric veterinarian who worries in advance about widowhood, a stage of life she has not reached. Ellen Parker’s Sil has a great many regrets about how her life turned out though she is still fighting to keep her head above water.
In the central role of Danny, Polly Draper has the most underwritten role: we learn that she is divorced from Richard but still is on friendly terms with him, has recently told her son he is adopted and is pushing him to meet his birth mother, and also feels guilty about her mother in her assisted living facility where she does not see her as much as she might like to. Other than this, we do not learn much about her other than to see her as an outgoing, likeable person. In his brief appearance as Danny’s son, Charles Socarides quickly establishes the energy and viewpoint of his generation, the millennials who are replacing his mother’s friends in the workplace.
Emily Mann’s laid-back directing keeps the play from ever breaking out into the passionate confrontation that it might have become. It is all played on the level of a sit-com about women of a certain age who know each other very well, a sort of Friends in their sixties but without the men in their lives. However, Miller and Mann do a terrific job of convincing us that these women have been comrades for four decades and know each other intimately, not an easy task in itself. Beowulf Boritt’s set for Danny’s loft apartment is extremely bland as though the photographer has not lived here very long or is only passing through. Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes are more successful at suggesting the lives of all these five women. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter and sound designer Darron L. West offer fine work in their respective areas.
There is nothing much very wrong with Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues that a few more revelations or dustups wouldn’t solve. Beth Dixon, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody and Ellen Parker play believable, recognizable women at a plateau in their lives when some taking stock is in order as they approach the age of being considered senior citizens. A pleasant evening in this form, but Miller’s play gives an aftertaste that will leave you hungry for more. It seems that in order not to offend, she is playing it too safe.
20th Century Blues (through January 28, 2018)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 416 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.20thcenturyblues.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission