Thursday, June 21, 2012

4000 Miles

Photo: Erin Baiano
Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles is a quiet, warm, delicate little play, inhabited by very real characters. It is also seamless, in the way that not very many plays are: there is no big, stagy moment near the end when a character turns to the light and reveals a big secret. Emotional healing does not clearly begin as the final curtain comes down. There is no carefully-paced lead-up to a stunning, shocking conclusion. No one learns about themselves or others in a way that is particularly big, or profound. Vera is old, but she does not die at the end; Leo is young, but he does not die--in an ironic twist!--either. There is, in short, no big catharsis; despite the largeness that the play's title implies, not a whole lot of big happens as 4000 Miles runs its course. What makes up the most of 4000 Miles is, instead, a whole mess of subtle, graceful, carefully understated realizations and confusions, emotional gains and setbacks, triumphs and disappointments. They make for a particularly satisfying visit to the Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

Amy Herzog is too interested in keeping it real to force anything on her characters except the general ebbs and flows of daily life, even during slightly trying or confusing times. Thus, her characters interact, bicker, make up, connect, disconnect, reconnect, and help or hurt each other in tiny, lingering ways as a few days--maybe a few weeks--go by. The fact that spending time with them is moving and interesting, that they are so complicated and flawed and likeable, and that the intermissionless show moves along so quickly despite the many silences, mundane conversations, and unanswered questions is a testament to Herzog and the fine, fine cast.

Most of the conversations--as well as the halting, heavy silences--take place between Leo (a wiry, tightly-wound, excellent Gabriel Ebert) and his grandmother, Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson, as close to perfect as is possible). Leo, a particularly lost 20-something, has just completed a cross-country bike-ride that he began with a close friend and completed alone. He shows up unannounced at Vera's Manhattan apartment at 3:00 AM, filthy, exhausted, and just a little too upbeat and enthusiastic, given the circumstances. Vera, whose occasional memory lapses and inability to remember certain words has in no way deprived her of whip-smart insight, takes pains not to push Leo to talk, but merely sends him to take a shower and then to get some sleep.

As the two settle in, we learn about them both through conversation and silence. They have plenty in common, despite the obvious generational differences: both are politically leftist and socially very liberal; both struggle with Jane, who is Leo's mom and Vera's stepdaughter. Both are enormously self-centered and small-minded in some ways, and just as enormously sympathetic, kindhearted, and open to the world in others. And, most importantly, both are in mourning: Vera for most of the people she knows, who seem to die on her daily, and Leo for the friend he began his cross-country bike-ride with.

They're both in mourning for the past, too. Vera has long ago realized that life doesn't quite work out the way one is convinced it will when one is idealistic and young; Leo is only just beginning to struggle with the ways that his ideologies--and the friendships he's formed around them--have begun to crumble, to betray him, to die. Leo's girlfriend, Bec (Zoe Winters, rock-solid), who lives in Brooklyn, has begun to think more seriously about college, and to ponder a future that doesn't necessarily include him. Leo, stung by the rejection, is nevertheless far more perturbed by the realization that he, too, is eventually going to need to put away childish things and begin the painful, hugely daunting process of becoming a grownup. Scenes near the end of the play involving a particularly ditzy, drunk artist (Greta Lee, dead-on) and Vera's unseen, elderly neighbor strongly imply that Leo is already on his way to becoming a perfectly fine grownup; while this might reassure the audience--I was certainly happy to know it--it does nothing for Leo, who hasn't arrived at adulthood yet, and whose growing pains haven't abated by the final curtain.

Herzog refuses to tidy everything up for us by the end of her play, which leaves her characters more or less the same as they were when we found them: a little damaged, a little sad, but no more or less so than anyone else. It's no spoiler to note that Vera and Leo are ultimately going to move on, too: Leo will not be crashing at his grandmother's place forever, and while this makes Vera very sad, it also pleases her. Neither she nor Leo is happy about the act of letting go, even though they both know and accept that ultimately, life is just as much about embracing as it is about releasing the embrace.

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