The four uncommon women who’ve gathered each year since meeting in jail 40 years ago in Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues have survived protest marches, sexual adventurism, marriage, childbirth, divorce, menopause, cancer, women’s liberation, women’s un-liberation – those most common of First World travails. They’ve also survived a measure of success that might have surprised their younger selves, but who knows? Like the five women who reunite post-college in Wendy Wasserstein’s watershed play Uncommon Women and Others – to which Miller seems unapologetically indebted – these four are determined to deal with everything the world throws their way. Except, dammit, regret.
For forty years they’ve met to catch up and to pose for a group portrait by Danny, played with bobo verve by Polly Draper (thirtysomething, The Good Wife), a professional photographer. (Her best-known photo, apparently, is “Council Meeting With Donuts.”) This year is different from the others, however: Danny is about to mount a retrospective at MoMA and give a TED talk, and she needs her friends’ consent to show the pictures that until now have been their private chronicle.
The friends in 20th Century Blues, which opened Sunday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, include Mac (the crisply dry Franchelle Stewart Dorn), a crusading black journalist with whom she had a brief fling back in the day; Gabby (the warmth-exuding Kathryn Grody), a Boston veterinarian with a do-gooder streak and a neurosis about surviving the death of her perfectly healthy husband, and Sil (Ellen Parker, who, now that I think of it, I’ve been writing about since she appeared in Uncommon Women), a real estate dealer about to endure a face lift in order to keep up with the younger, better-toned competition.
“I’m here to disrupt any notions we have about what we will or should be remembered for,” Danny says at the opening, which is set at the beginning of her TED talk (another Wasserstein hat-tip, this time to The Heidi Chronicles, which begins with an art lecture by the title character). The rest is a flashback to that fortieth gathering, which centers on Sil’s unanticipated reluctance to sign the release. She has no desire to share “the forty years of our gradual decline,” with a youth-obsessed world (no one does buzz kill better than Parker). Later Gabby, who wants peace, wonders who would even care: “Does it really matter, anyway? I mean, do people still look? On my entire walk through this city no one looked at me.”
The introduction of Danny’s addled mother (played by the wonderful Beth Dixon) and grown son (Charles Socarides) adds unintended bathos. That this is familiar terrain, and Miller can lay it on thick, makes it no less timely, especially on the subject of invisibility as it applies to most female humans over, say, 30. Wasserstein had the courage to be angry about her women, with their compromises and their disappointments; Miller has the grace to be empathic, something crucially and deeply felt in Emily Mann’s sensitive staging. I’m certain that’s why 20th Century Blues grew on me, as it did.
Of all the film actors of his generation who pledge dual fealty to the stage, Billy Crudup actually walks the walk. In the case of Harry Clarke, David Cale’s 90-minute solo show Crudup’s performing at the invaluable Vineyard Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square, he talks the talk as well, that’s for sure. The Vineyard has been a regular perch for Crudup, its grotto walls adorned with photos of him in previous shows (The Metal Children, America Dreaming) when he wasn’t on Broadway (beginning auspiciously in 1995 with Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia) and making important films (Spotlight, 20th Century Women).
Harry Clarke is what wheat-belt bred Philip Brugglestein has called himself from childhood, when he began speaking with an English accent, as if to the mannerism born. As Philip, he is the timid, fearful butt of his father’s abuse. As Harry, however, he’s swaggeringly confident, the life of the party, the object of desire, a master of the hustle. He will undoubtedly remind you of Patricia Highsmith’s sinister Mr. Ripley. Phil is gradually subsumed by Harry as he eventually moves to New York and eases his way into the lives – and boudoirs – of a wealthy, Newport-summering family while posing as the indispensable personal assistant to the singer Sade.
Crudup switches not only among Philip, Harry and his sneering father, but also will transform himself with the widening of an eye, a deft riposte, into each member of the all-to-eager family. It’s a dazzler of a performance, choreographed with precision by director Leigh Silverman. It’s also quietly unsettling, I’d say even shocking, as we realize there’s a void where Harry’s soul should be. That’s what gives Harry Clarke its inevitable poignancy. I thought back to that father’s unrelenting cruelty and realized there is no Harry, but there’s no Philip, either. He was erased early on, and a monster took his place.