"And All that Jazz"
Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues (yes, there’s a missing hyphen) at the Signature is a middling feminist comedy with a bookend or sandwich structure. It begins and ends with the same situation, its center section being a flashback.
The sandwich’s opening slice introduces Danny, a photographer in her 60s—played nicely by the husky-voiced Polly Draper, looking 10 years younger than her actual age—delivering a TED talk.
Danny, divorced, attractively artsy-looking, and bi-leaning on the sexual spectrum, describes her upcoming exhibition at MoMA, its subject the photos she took annually over a period of 40 years of three women she befriended in the 70s. That’s when they met in a jail cell where they were incarcerated for a night after participating in a political protest. Danny hopes to express through their faces women’s history over the past four decades.
Before we get to the second slice, which returns us to the TED talk, we have the sandwich’s mostly meatless contents, a flashback to four months earlier, first to an assisted living facility where Danny visits her 91-one-year-old, mildly dementia-ridden mother, Bess (Beth Dixon).
Then, for the bulk of the play’s hour and 40 minutes, the time shifts to later that day when we’re in Danny’s home/studio—an impressively realistic loft designed by Beowulf Borritt and lit by Jeff Croiter—where she and her friends gather so Danny can take their 40th yearly photograph.
We meet the friends one at a time: Gabby (Kathryn Grody) is a married, silver-haired, bespectacled, Jewish veterinarian who weeps when one of her canine patients dies; Sil (Ellen Parker) is a struggling realtor, separated from her husband, and determined to have plastic surgery; and Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is a noteworthy African-American journalist, living with her lesbian lover, and drinking heavily because she’s being laid off. Costume designer Jennifer Von Mayrhauser has given each a modish look reflective of her personality.
The articulate quartet drinks, smokes pot, and eats Danny’s French toast while reminiscing about their friendship, talking about their personal and career-related issues, reflecting on women-related subjects, and, in a fun but clichéd routine, free-dancing to a beat-heavy disco song.
About the only plot concerns the friends' respective reluctance, despite its importance for Danny’s career, to take the final photograph for what will be a public display of their aging faces. Eventually, Danny’s son, Simon (Charles Socarides), a cable/internet journalist eventually arrives, with Bess in tow, and Danny announces her decision regarding her mom’s future.
Flash forward to the TED talk again and the sandwich is completed as the outcome of the photo shoot is revealed, a sad bit of news is introduced, and a lovely collage of photos (a masterful Photoshop job by Borritt) is projected.
There’s really not much here to chew on. The conversation, which occasionally stirs a ripple of polite laughter, has a biteless artificiality, the characters lack dimensionality, and dramatic tension is notably absent.
Some of the dialogue concerning the women’s hesitation about their 40th photograph sounds more academic than natural; at any rate, it’s hard to buy. And, like many playwrights, Miller has difficulty finding convincing reasons to get characters offstage so that others can be left alone to speak privately.
Neither veteran director Emily Mann nor her cast of seasoned, talented performers can do much to maintain continued interest in a script that casually ping-pongs from one familiar topic to another, none of them illuminated in some surprising new light: technology, facelifts, women’s looks, breast cancer, aging and ageism, sex—hetero and homo, the decline of print journalism, kids with transgender inclinations, and even (TMI) lubrication. Been there, done that.
At a few points, audiences will probably be touched, as was my plus-one. Perhaps a funnier script might have made the rest of this sandwich easier to swallow; as it is, the most amusing lines are the confused comments spoken by Danny’s mother. When the best lines in a comedy about the dilemmas faced by modern women come from a nonagenarian woman with dementia it’s time to sing the blues, regardless of the century.
Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 28