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20th Century Blues

Susan Miller's new play follows four friends in their 60s as they struggle to adapt to the contemporary world.

Polly Draper, Kathryn Grody, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, and Ellen Parker in 20th Century Blues.
(© Joan Marcus)

A week after the opening of Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves comes 20th Century Blues, a new play by Susan Miller that could easily be considered its sequel. The Wolves looks at nine teenagers on the cusp of womanhood; 20th Century Blues follows four sixtysomething friends as they confront the downsides of being an adult, primarily aging and ageism. Where the former is an exciting, kinetic portrait of life on the verge of change, the latter tells its story in a way that feels more akin to a ticking-off of important subjects.

Forty years ago, Danny (Polly Draper), Sil (Ellen Parker), Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), and Gabby (Kathryn Grody) met when they shared a night in prison in the 1970s. Every year since, Danny, a professional photographer, has gathered her group of besties together to take their portrait.

Over the decades, this series of photos, sans makeup and retouching, has exemplified the passage of time and showcased the effects of major life events, from new jobs to ending relationships to the big C. But when the Museum of Modern Art gives Danny a career retrospective, and she decides the show will focus on these never-before-seen photographs rather than her classic images, the relationship between the four friends is put to the test.

20th Century Blues is a warm play, but one that cares more about stating big ideas than theatricalizing them. It's a stage version of a think piece: Rather than find dramatic ways of explicating issues facing contemporary women in their 60s, Miller presents them as bullet points in dialogue. "How could we ever claim to be postracial or postfeminist? We aren't post anything," Danny says to her pals before a pregnant pause. "Except truth." Mac, a high-powered journalist who's just been bought out of her contract, replies, "November 8, 2016," to knowing sighs onstage and off.

Though the four protagonists are believable as friends, little about their performances are as real they need to be. Draper, in particular, seems to be delivering her lines by rote, with strange pauses occasionally in between words and sentences. Only when Danny's adopted son, Simon (Charles Socarides), enters the scene with Danny's elderly mom, Bess (Beth Dixon), do we feel like two believably human characters have taken the stage. Dixon, in particular, is dead-on in her very recognizable turn as an Alzheimer's patient who hasn't yet lost the fire in her belly.

Despite a realistic-looking artsy loft set by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser that define the inner lives of each character (Grody, for instance, wears the exact kind of outfit you'd expect to see on the daffy, pot-smoking aging hippie Gabby), 20th Century Blues is directed by Emily Mann with too leisurely a hand. The gentleness of the pacing, combined with the overall lack of discernible conflict in Miller's genial script, creates an evening that isn't particularly engaging. There's virtue in exploring how the boomer generation reacts when the world outpaces it, but this play gives us the blues when we realize all of its missed opportunities.

Ellen Parker, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Polly Draper, and Kathryn Grody star in 20th Century Blues.
(© Joan Marcus)