4000 Miles

by Amy Herzog
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Featuring Gabriel Ebert, Greta Lee, Mary Louis Wilson, Zoe Winters
Lincoln Center Theater Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street
March 15, 2012 — May 20, 2012 [opening April 3, 2012]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 24, 2012

Mary Louise Wilson embraced from behind by Gabriel Ebert. Photo by Chang W. Lee.

Lefty politics and gentle intergenerational interactions have marked two pieces by young playwright Amy Herzog on New York stages in the past few years.  After The Revolution at Playwrights Horizons was a sparely staged story of family mysteries and motherless children and second marriages and adult children making sense of their own parent’s political deeds and misdeeds while figuring out their own futures. 4000 Miles now at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse, after a run last year at the Duke on 42nd Street, explores politics on a smaller scale with the same grandmother archetype present. Herzog has created a theatre of people not hysterics telling stories of revelation and small surprises that emerge from rather than feel appended to a story. Imperfect and understandable and human characters you grow to love.

Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson) lives alone in her long-time Greenwich Village apartment, the single setting of the action of the story, evoking memories of Donald Margulies‘ Collected Stories.  But while Margulies’ play provides action via a grandmotherly writer in her Village apartment and a young woman who presents herself to learn at her feet, Vera’s apartment is a respite, a refuge, for her own college-aged grandson Leo (Gabriel Ebert) who arrives unannounced at her door in the wee hours of the morning. The action of the play is composed primarily of Leo’s revelations of what has or has not happened in his life on the West coast (with allusions to time at Reed College in Oregon cementing our perceptions of him as hippie child — one can almost smell the patchouli karma), at his family home in Minnesota (with some perhaps extraneous details), and events on the bike trip. We learn that Leo has traveled the 4000 miles from west to east coasts on his bicycle in part with an absent friend — part of the story that unfolds.  Vera is supportive, assertive, abrasive, touchingly affected by the loss of yet another agemate during the course of the play. Leo is all youth and earnest searching and fun sexuality with an old girlfriend Bec (Zoe Winters) and a chance pick-up one evening Amanda (Greta Lee). The play is about family, and their gentle loving acceptance of their lives, their politics, their pains, their struggles, their paths, and each other.

The set by Lauren Helpern (based on playwright Herzog’s grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment) evokes a life lived deeply but not superficially (leftist philosophy on the shelves, native rugs on the floors, well-worn solid furniture, file cabinets as end tables), and light by Japhy Weideman provides city through apartment windows at midnight, at day break, at evening, at any time. A spare setting for a gentle story of two generations coming together through telling stories of past and present. Trusting each other to tell their stories.

A few days before 4000 Miles opened, the New York Times published an interview with the playwright and her grandmother whose politics and whose apartment inspired the setting and the character of this play. I found myself enchanted by the playwright, and falling in love with her artistically inspiring grandmother Leepee Joseph, the model for the Veras of 4000 Miles and After the Revolution. Here is a woman, we learn, who worked in the theater section of the W.P.A., studied acting with John Garfield, worked for Cheryl Crawford and Marc Blitzstein and Kitty Carlisle Hart. I dream of a published memoir one day, or a play more specifically suggested by her work with these theatre greats and her story as the focus of our attention on stage. A gal can dream. However Ms. Herzog is inspired by her fascinating family, it seems, we theatre-goers are the beneficiaries.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 9, 2012)

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