Having spent an enormous chunk of time over the past few years writing from the perspective of being a Woman of a Certain Age, my reaction to Susan Miller's 20th Century Blues is this: Horse Hockey (to quote Colonel Potter in "MASH"). This is a well-intentioned play, focusing on a subject that is rarely seen in the theatre. Nevertheless the storyline is so contrived that it nearly doubles back on itself and in the process loses its hold on the point of the tale.
This is a reunion. Danny (Polly Draper) is a photographer. She has been taking portraits of three women she met in lockup (first unbelievable note) for 40 years. If I get the story straight, these women only see each other once a year - and that is for the portrait. Gabby (Kathryn Grody) is a veterinarian with a poor sense of direction in all ways possible. Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is a journalist about to be let go. Sil (Ellen Parker) is a real-estate agent frightened of being aged out of the market.
They have all shown up for the portrait, except this year there is a twist. A plot point, really. Danny has asked each of them to sign a release so that she can show the photographs that these women have never seen in her upcoming retrospective exhibition at MoMa. The women, she is surprised to learn, do not want to sign anything, period. Not only that, but they are concerned that what will show up in the photographs will be invasive or revealing or inappropriate.
Understandable. And all it would take would be for Danny to show them the photos. But then there would be no play. So PS Danny does show them the photos, but not until we are in the home stretch - and that is a long time coming.
In between the arrivals and the windup these women complain. And complain. And complain. Sil has arrived wearing the markings of a proposed facelift (which easily wash off so why does she arrive shrouded?) which starts the conversation off on the downward path. Gabby is afraid of losing her husband to who knows so she has holed up in a hotel to practice being alone. Mac spends her time drinking mostly room temperature vodka and showing no signs of getting high as she bemoans what has happened to journalism. The only one with two feet planted in possibility is Danny, who wants to show the photos as a testament to lives LIVED WELL. But she too has challenges dealing with her aging mother Bess (Beth Dixon) who is in assisted living and her son Simon (Charles Socarides) who just found out he is adopted.
The writing swirls around these women like so much chiffon yardage. There is no "there" there. The actors try valiantly, but these characters are not firing on all cylinders, so there is little they can do other than be valiant. Ditto the direction by Emily Mann. Listen - I know from conversations with Baby Boomers. Sure there might be some whining about the aging process, but that only lasts so long. Even we get bored by that theme and move ourselves on to something that excites us. We Boomers do not talk the way these characters do. We wouldn't last.
In the predictable end, we see the photographs. The audience sighs and reflects on time passing. Most of us know from this aging business. Which is why most of the audience stood up to applaude at the curtain call. I believe they were applauding for the idea of this production. The idea that we Boomers were at least being represented, being shown to be alive and involved in life. It is an important POV that is seen too little.
20th Century Blues sugar coats and trades in vitality for a bland cocktail. We Boomers are more than what is presented here. Way more. Writers - start your engines.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Ms. Miller’s play, warmly directed by Emily Mann, would seem to owe an inspirational debt to The Brown Sisters: Forty Years. Nicholas Nixon’s cumulative portraits of his wife and her sisters, shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2014. In these affecting images you can see time’s ravages and also its consolations. Ms. Miller’s play, however, withholds its photographs until the very end. What she provides instead is talkier, if less eloquent."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
External links to full reviews from popular press...