The title of Amy Herzog’s new play refers to the cross-country bicycle trip that 21-year old Leo Joseph-Connell made with a male friend that began in Seattle with New York as their destination. It ended in tragedy midway across the country when the friend is killed in a freakish road accident. Saddened and distraught, Leo (Gabriel Ebert) cannot bring himself to return to his family in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he has evidently caused severe family disapproval for kissing his step-sister a little too passionately at a family gathering.
Once in New York, his attempt to seek respite and to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend Bec is futile, as she tells him to take a hike (before the play begins). It is 3 a.m. when the exhausted and filthy Leo rings the bell of the apartment in Greenwich Village where the long-widowed Vera Joseph (Mary Louise Wilson) his 91-year-old grandmother lives alone. Dragging his bike inside and pulling off his backpack, Leo is not in great shape. Will Leo find a welcome and somewhat needed solace from his grandmother/former Marxist activist, or will the generation gap be a cause for a clash of personalities and wills?
For those who saw Herzog’s critically acclaimed “After the Revolution” when it was produced Off Broadway by Playwrights Horizons last season, the surname of Joseph will ring a bell. In it, the grandmother Vera Joseph, a widow and her extended family are thrown into a state of crisis when the question of honesty and patriotism surfaces with regard to the black-listed grandfather’s pro-Marxist legacy. Vera returns 10 years older in “4000 Miles.”
Drawing on and inspired by her own family’s history, her own grandmother in particular, Herzog can be praised for creating, or perhaps recreating, an adorably formidable and feisty personality. Despite her impaired hearing among other typical signs of aging to be expected in the decade since the events in “After the Revolution,” Vera Joseph provides the play with its most crisply entertaining moments. The outspoken and rarely outsmarted Vera is played to perfection by Wilson whose flair for the outspoken was also grandly deployed portraying Big Edie in “Grey Gardens” Diana Vreeland in “Full Gallop.”
The tall and lanky Ebert is excellent as Leo, who realizes he may be imposing on his grandmother but instinctively feels he has arrived at a place where he can stay a few days and possibly reassess his future or at least plan his next move. As a witness to the death of his friend, Leo has difficulty dealing with it and struggles to find closure. The living room of Vera’s nicely detailed rent-controlled apartment with a peak into the mini-kitchen has been carefully evoked to indicate mid-20th-century middle-class comfort, including a large bookcase and more amusingly a bright red dial-up phone on the wall.
That Vera has remained an ardent Communist is confirmed by her imposing library that contains an eye-opening title that is spotted by Amanda (Greta Lee), the 19 year-old Chinese student who Leo picks up one night. The flirtatious Amanda suddenly goes bananas before the nonplussed Leo when she spots a book about Communism, a painful reminder of the kind of life her family had endured before their escape from China. Suddenly aborting their impending fling she’s out the door.
As amusing as that brief scene us, it is the rewarding relationship between Leo and Vera that gives the play its point and purpose. Two generations apart, they, almost without knowing it, discover the bond that curiously links them and all those who find themselves outsiders. Notwithstanding the gap between Vera’s socio-political activism that she once feverishly embraced and still advocates and the less ardent but still free-spirited, progressive thinking that motivates Leo, an unforced and almost subliminal respect and understanding develops between them.
The long-ish one-act play gains momentum through Leo’s deepening respect for Vera and through Vera’s gradual dependency on Leo. In one particularly sweet and funny scene, we see them sitting side by side on the living room sofa just chatting and smoking pot. In her typical take-us-by-surprise manner, she reveals quite candidly, “You know your father never did anything for me in bed.”
The long-time romantic connection between Leo and Bec (Zoe Winters) isn’t easily broken as Bec’s return visits confirm. I like the way Herzog handles their conflicted on-again-off-again romance, each one feeling the physical attraction, but at the same time pulled apart by their dissimilar needs and goals. What is most endearing in Winter’s performance is that she lets us see the emotional turmoil that Bec is feeling even as she knows what her next step is going to be. Her post-graduate opportunity in India doesn’t exactly equate with what she sees as Leo’s future, which may turn out to be training kids in survival techniques in the mountains.
Under the sensitive, unhurried direction of Daniel Aukin “4000 Miles” doesn’t have quite as much at stake, or come as close to the socio-political bone as did “After the Revolution,” with its myriad of familial voices articulating the impassioned nuances that differentiate Communism from Socialism. But “4000 Miles” is, nevertheless, winning and wise in an engaging way. How wonderful it is that Herzog has been able to draw from such a colorful family history and create two sequential plays (is a third forthcoming?) that reflect the progressive spirit as it is embodied, nurtured and passed on from generation to generation. HHH
“4000 Miles,” Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street. Through Monday, July 9. For tickets ($75-$85) call 212-239-6200.
The key: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You won’t feel cheated; HH Maybe you should have stayed home; H Don’t blame us.