Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Lincoln Center: 4000 Miles

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 MILES.  Photo by Richard Termine for the New York Times
Considering how well-received 4000 Miles was when it had its LCT3 world premiere at the Duke Theater last summer, it is not surprising that Lincoln Center has chosen to provide the play with an encore run at its larger Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.  Written by Amy Herzog, the play centers on Leo (Gabriel Ebert), a 21 year old hippie loosely based on one of Herzog’s cousins, who arrives unexpectedly at 3 AM at the Greenwich Village home of his 91 year old grandmother, Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson).  Leo, as it turns out, has just completed a cross country bicycle trip from Seattle to New York and needs a place to crash and stash his bike.

According to Herzog, Vera (who previously appeared in a more subordinate role in Herzog’s earlier play, After the Revolution), is based directly on the playwright's grandmother, a passionate Marxist who, at 95, still lives independently in her Greenwich Village apartment.  Somewhat surprisingly then, given Vera’s persona, this turns out to be a very low key quiet play in which not very much happens.  It is much more of a mood piece than a dramatic story.

Leo ends up staying with his grandmother longer than he had planned, but the additional time isn’t put to much use.  He and Vera share memories of loss (Vera has been widowed for a decade, she is now the last of her octogenarian club and, as the play nears a close, her across-the-hall neighbor passes away as well; for his part, Leo lost his best friend, Micah, in the course of his transcontinental bike journey and, by the end of the play, he is eulogizing Vera’s across-the-hall neighbor, whom he had never met).  Leo and Vera have other things in common as well, including a dislike for Leo’s mother (Vera’s step-daughter).

All of this might suggest that the play is about what we all have in common but it is not.  On the contrary, despite Vera’s platitudinous concerns for others, an outgrowth of her Marxist leanings, when push comes to shove, the play forces us to realize just how separate from one another we all are.  Vera and her across-the-hall neighbor may have telephoned each other every night to see how each other were doing (or at least to confirm that they were both still alive), but neither would ever have dreamt of just dropping in on the other unannounced.  When Vera reminisces about her first marriage to a philanderer, it is to recall how separate their lives were.  When Leo’s best friend, Micah, died on their road trip, Leo didn’t attend the funeral but just continued on his own way.  Neither Leo nor Vera ever make any real attempt to re-connect with Leo’s mother.  When Leo addresses Vera, it is only sometimes as “grandmother” and just as often as plain “Vera.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Herzog even chose to create Leo as Vera’s step-grandchild rather than as her blood relative, as if to underscore their separation and de-emphasize anything they might have in common.

In sum, this play is less like a unified painting and more like a collage (and a rather nihilistic one at that).  Here are some pieces from Vera’s life and here are some pieces from Leo’s.  Occasionally they may touch each other or even overlap a bit, but they generally remain distinct.  There is no single important story line in which both Vera and Leo play major roles but rather parallel story lines for the two of them with occasional intersections.  And the same thing is true for the other two characters in the play: Bec (Zoe Winters), Leo’s sometime girlfriend who is not about to allow her life to become too entangled in his, and Amanda (Greta Lee), Leo’s almost one night stand whose name he has difficulty remembering.

And that is why I found the play to be mildly disappointing.  To be sure, Herzog has a wonderful ear for dialogue and she has created a terrific character in Vera Joseph (or at least recognized the theatrical potential in her own grandmother and brought her to life on the stage).  And, without question, the acting, especially by Wilson, is absolutely delightful.  But, at least for me, fine dialogue and professional acting aren’t enough.  A good play requires a real story line as well and that, unfortunately, was what was lacking here.          

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