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A CurtainUp Review
20th Century Blues

I used to think old people came into the world that way. There were babies. Children. Adults. And old people. It didn't sink in for a long time that one person, including me, would actually change, inexorably, from one to the other. That one person could embody all those opposing forms.— Danny
20th Century Blues
L-R:Ellen Parker, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody (Gabby). (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Susan Miller's 20th Century Blues now playing at the Pershing Square Center's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is an engaging play. One of its main assets is that itt gives four women over age 60 a chance to show off their considerable talents.

The concept: A quartet of accomplished, interesting women met and bonded forty years ago when they were jailed during a civil rights protest. Danny (Polly Draper), who's a photographer has taken a group photo at an annual get-together. Now that she's quite famous and has been given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Danny has decided to use these photos to represent her work.

As Danny explains during a Ted Talk that introduces the play, these women are the ones she wanted to represent her generation at MOMA because "They have something to tell you. Their faces say what I can't." The way she sees it their having been through all the major historic events and social upheavals of the 20th century individually and as a group, would make these pictures into a very human portrait.

Except for a brief detour to the assisted living facility where Danny's 91-year old mother Bess (Beth Dixon) resides, plus a final return to the Ted Talk opening, most of the 140 minutes take place in Danny's Manhattan loft. The shift between the Ted Talk and the more fully detailed loft scenes owe much to scenic and projection designer Beowulf Boritt.

The action focuses on the group's gathering for the annual photo shoot with food and socializing. The pending retrospective adds a new wrinkle to the picture taking — the women are asked to sign a release permitting her to use their past and present images for her MOMA exhibit.

It's each woman's reaction to the idea of having images covering forty years of her life go public that provides the play with its dramatic conflict. It also gives us an in-depth look at their relationships with each other and forces them to deal with being in that stage of life — a stage that tends to make then feel as if they're invisible and a sense of being made irrelevant by a younger generation.

Of course the problems facing Danny, Mac, Sil and Gabby aren't limited to women. Living in a society that over values an ever youthful appearance, dealing with increasingly frail parents and surviving in changing work environments, impacts men as women. That reality, plus the outstanding performances and the handsome and effective staging, keeps this from being a strictly "girls' night out" play.

Director Emily Mann has guided each actress to present a unique, fully dimensioned personality and make their at once loving and tense interactions real and believable. Jennifer von Mayrhauser's costumes further serve to individualize them.

The embrace by MOMA certainly proves that Danny is at the top of her game. However, she is dealing with so many busy baby boomers' problem of caring for a mother in the early stages of Alzheimer's. And now she's up against her friends' response to her request to put their un-photoshopped faces (especially the more current ones) on a museum wall.

The toughest and most cynical member of the group is real estate broker Sil (Ellen Parker). Though chic and attractive and apparently quite successful, she knows what she sees when she looks in the mirror. Given the tough time she had aftger being dumped by her husband during a down period in an industry that more than ever equates youth with success, she is most threatened by Danny's idea for turning the heretofore private photos into a public art work.

Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is another achieving woman. But though a respected journalist, she's faced with her paper based journalism in And so, while she's aware that the publicity might help her fight to avoid forced early retirement, the idea of these informal shoots turning into something quite different feels like another unwanted change. What's more, she's not gungho to be involved in issues of aging, since as an African-American and a Lesbian she's broken more than her share of barriers (the print newsroom's old boy network, race and gay rights).

The only yea sayer is Gabby (Kathryn Grody), a quirky hippy type who nevertheless got through six years of vetennary school and has her own practice. As she's dealt with her obsession about losing her husband with strategic attempts at becoming more independent (including membership in a bereavement group), she's ready to go along with letting the world see her with her gray hair and her no longer young face.

Danny, frustrated with her friends resistance to her.project, brings out a box with prints of all the pictures taken over the years. And the resulting ruminations clarify the point the playwright, and through her Danny, is making — that these pictures aren't just a record of their getting older, but an overview of the ages we all go through, which, if we live long enough, includes extreme old age.

It's understandable why Ms. Miller has opted to expand her focus on characters who are all in the same late middle age stage through two other characters from different parts of this ages-of-man spectrum: Danny's mother Bess (Beth Dixon) and son Simon (Charles Socarides). While both play their limited roles beautifully, their scenes don't fit in as seamlessly as they should, nor do they add any significant depth. Fortunately, neither do they detract enough from the play's otherwise substantial pleasures. .

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20th Century Blues by Susan Miller
Directed by Emily Mann
Cast: Beth Dixon (Bess), Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Mac), Polly Draper (Danny), Kathryn Grody (Gabby), Ellen Parker (Sill), Charles Socaride (Simon).
Scenic design and projection design by Beowulf Boritt
Costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser
Lighting by Jeff Croiter
Sound by Darron L West
Stage Manager: Samantha Flint
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Theater Center 480 W. 42nd Street
From 11/12/17; opening 11/26/17; closing 1/28/18
Tuesday 7:30 PM, Wednesday 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM, Thursday 7:30 PM, Friday 7:30 PM, Saturday 2PM & 8:00 PM, Sunday 2:00 PM Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/20/17 press preview

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