The tribulations of dysfunctional families have provided fodder for playwrights since the ancient Greeks, but contemporary author Amy Herzog has found a new wrinkle in her recent play 4000 Miles that cleverly refreshes the formula. Headstrong, volatile, and moderately entitled Millennial Leo drops in unannounced at 3:00 a.m. on his nonagenarian Grandmother Vera in her Greenwich Village apartment, and the sparks begin to fly.
A sharp-tongued, brutally candid, unrepentant Marxist, Vera delivers regular karate chops to the audience members’ rosy memories of sweet, indulgent grandmothers. But just because these characters have sharp edges does not mean they are totally unsympathetic. In fact, the deft manner in which Herzog has drawn these two individuals and the nuanced interpretations given by Connor Sullivan as Leo and Jill Drexler as Vera make us care about them quite a bit.
Leo has arrived in the Big Apple at the end of a cross-country bicycle trip (the source of the play’s title) on which his closest buddy Micah was killed in a freak truck accident in New Mexico. After his university student girlfriend Bec refuses to let him into her Manhattan apartment, he has retreated to Vera’s place to recuperate both physically and emotionally. Vera is still adjusting to the relatively recent loss of her husband, a staunch fellow traveler, so the mutual company of grandmother and grandson should be just what the doctor ordered.
And in a TV sit-com, Grandma would start making chicken soup and Leo would recount his childhood memories of all the great things she did for him. Herzog is interested in none of that sentimental drivel. Their odd couple relationship unfolds in starts and fits: she does his laundry and loans him money to go to a nearby gym, and after exercise he lounges on the sofa reading his grandfather’s political tomes plucked from the living room library. Vera tries to extract information about Leo and his mother, her daughter, but true to his family DNA, Leo prefers to spout current ecological doctrine and staunchly refuses to speak about his mother.
Like a Sam Shepherd play, not a lot happens in 4000 Miles, but Herzog’s acerbic dialogue is positively mesmerizing. In one scene, the shy, awkward Bec pays a visit to officially break up with Leo, and in another he brings home after the bars close Amanda, a sexy, sophisticated young Chinese-American woman. Intent on conquest, Leo misses the condescending irony when she playfully calls him her “mountain man,” but the situation goes south when she notices the apartment’s Marxist library. After delivering a strident rant on how the Communists ruined China—the reason her family left—and how she could never have sex in a “Communist apartment,” she storms out, leaving poor Leo adrift again.
Drexler’s Vera dutifully pads about her apartment in drab frocks, displaying that stereotypical bent-over senior posture. But when she goes to an event uptown, costumer Glenn Paris has provided her with a terribly smart black suit and matching hat that instantly improves the old gal’s posture. Amanda’s chic, up-to-the minute club wear tells us immediately that she is slumming with Leo, and Yumi Roussin plays this Asian tigress with consummate verve.
Sullivan and Drexler rightly own the play, and their chemistry is a joy to experience. He mixes an almost sweet, earnest demeanor with edgy, slightly hostile assertiveness in just the right proportions, and Drexler deftly cloaks her need for sympathetic company under a hard-boiled, urban exterior. Michelle Marie Trester does well with the under-written role of Bec, and she shines for a brief moment towards the end of the play when she bravely attempts to reconcile with Leo.
In spite of the play’s modest dramatic arc, director Claudio Raygoza has paced 4000 Miles beautifully, engaging the audience at every turn and finding a variety of ways to group this small cast in the single-set apartment living room. Paris designed Vera’s living room to suggest modest, tasteful comfort, but the pastel rotary phone is the set’s pièce de résistance. I felt a nostalgic twinge every time she dialed it!
4000 Miles, first produced in New York in 2011, has won numerous awards, including the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play, and was a finalist in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Kudos to ion for bringing this stellar script to San Diego and realizing it with such skill and finesse.
Ion Theatre opened Amy Herzog’s 4ooo Miles on September 24, 2016, at the ion @ blkbox in Hillcrest. The play runs Thursday through Sunday through October 15, 2016.