Amy Herzog's play 4000 Miles chronicles the relationship between a young man of 21, who has just biked across the country, and his grandmother of 91, living in a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2012. Its production at New York's Lincoln Center was extended twice. It had had a number of U.S. productions and has garnered widespread critical acclaim, with a few dissenters who were less than enchanted with a thin story line.
The young biker Leo is portrayed by Jordan Jaffe, artistic director of the Black Lab Theatre Company, and he brings a tall ranginess to the role, and an admirable beard, and captures the sense of a youth who has yet to find his moorings in life. The grandmother, Vera is played by Waltrudis Buck, who had previously portrayed Vera in a production at the Vermont Stage Company, and who creates an endearing portrait of an elderly survivor. (Buck is decades younger than 91, almost certainly necessary for a production - Mary Louise Wilson was a decade younger than Vera when she was acclaimed in the role in New York.)
Though Vera may have to search for a word, she is self-sufficient, doing the laundry and shopping, and caring for herself. The interactions between the two form the heart of the play, as Leo's unannounced overnight stay extends into several weeks.
Leo's former girlfriend, Bec, played by Shannon Nicole Hill, also lives in New York, and has two cameo appearances in Vera's apartment. And Andrea Huang plays Amanda, a girl Leo has picked up for a one-night stand. They add variety, and help fill out the 105 minute intermissionless play, but are tangential to the play, if not irrelevant.
The play falls in the Reader's Digest of theater - "The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met". Vera has led an interesting life, with philandering husbands and a Marxist background, and has earned the right to speak her mind, and does. Buck is a gifted actor, and it is a pleasure to watch her, and to have met Vera onstage.
Leo is far more problematic. He is self-centered to the point of rudeness, swears at Vera, won't even take his pickup's phone number on the pretense of calling her, misses an important funeral and borrows Vera's money. He is a boor, and the relationship with Vera never really catches fire. There is a missed connection here, and that seems to be the heart of the play - how we miss connections.
Bec is self-described as "sad", and we never see what she and Leo had in common, though he refers to a once-satisfying physical relationship. Bec is a drifter, unmoored, unconnected. We know little about Amanda except that she is Chinese, has learned from her expatriate parents to hate communism, and is promiscuous; Leo is just one more missed connection.
There is an extended monologue about the death of Leo's biking companion, but the bizarre details of the tragedy undermine its poignance. This information is delayed in order to add a spurious note of mystery, a too-common device used by playwrights. Also delayed for the same purpose is the reason for Leo's estrangement from his mother, a peyote-inspired trivial incident that looms so large to Leo, his mother, and his adopted sister that it has torn the family apart. The sane response here would be "Get a life."
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Black Lab has done great work - I returned to see its brilliant production of Boom a second time - but here even the talents of its gifted director Justin Doran are not quite able to paper over a sensitive but largely flavorless work. The writing is low-key, and this can be authentic, as we don't live our lives in the midst of a maelstrom of melodrama. And understatement can be powerful and effective - but not here.
Playwright Herzog was inspired to write the play by her fascination with own grandmother, and it's easy to sense that 4000 Miles has a special resonance for the writer. But the fascination has failed to be transferred to the stage, though the lush reviews suggest that critics can be seduced by sentimentality, or by great acting.
The verdict: Talented actors do a lot, but not quite enough, to create interest in a flawed vehicle, and don't quite connect in a play about characters who don't quite connect.
4000 Miles continues through March 16, from Black Lab Theatre at Freneticore Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-515-4028 or contact www.blacklabtheatre.com.