With 4000 Miles, Amy Herzog graduates to the head of the class
By Doug Strassler
I wasn’t a very big fan of Amy Herzog’s last play, 2010’s After the Revolution; despite a starry and experienced cast, I found the thoughtful work heavy-handed and dramatically clunky. I am happy to report, then, that I am exceedingly impressed, with Herzog’s latest, 4000 Miles, which is currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater after a summer run as part of its LCT3 series. In its own measured, sometimes anti-theatrical way, this new work suggests the deft hand of an emerging playwright I plan to keep watching.
4000 Miles isn’t just an impressive play, however. It’s also a handsome production, smartly staged by director Daniel Aukin and starring a pair of superb actors. Veteran Mary Louise Wilson is Vera, a widowed grandmother living in an impressive Greenwich Village apartment and Gabriel Ebert is Leo, the grandson who surprises her by showing up late one summer night after cross-country cycling trip. Though Leo has an estranged relationship with his family (he asks Vera, a bit too cryptically, not to tell his mother where he is), it is implied that in his younger years Leo and Vera enjoyed a fairly close bond.
Ostensibly, the show’s title refers to the amount of real estate Leo intended to cover on his sojourn, but “miles” also refer to the emotional distance Herzog charts between Vera and Leo. Or perhaps between either of them and anyone else. Conversations between them are clipped and adversarial, and Leo drops enough f-bombs to make anyone blanch, let alone an octogenarian, even one that was once married to a famous radical. Both of them are stunted, albeit for different reasons, and the weeks that Leo spends in Vera’s apartment demonstrate the way in which each of them regards the world. Vera means well, but puts up plenty of armor against anyone she thinks might attempt to take advantage of her (often, with good reason). Leo, meanwhile, may lead a fairly green lifestyle (he doesn’t even own a cell phone), but he’s not above such hedonistic twenty-something pleasures as wanton one-night stands and pot smoking (Greta Lee aces one scene as the current object of Leo’s bloodshot roving eye).
Aukin’s penchant for verisimilitude might be initially off-putting for audiences. Awkward pauses and extended mid-scene trips characters take offstage make moments, especially early in the play, feel accidental or under-rehearsed. Herzog creates almost an inverted structure in Miles. Scenes don’t necessarily build in the traditional narrative sense but stand as individual episodes that heighten perspective on Leo and Vera, and the climax is actually the stuff most playwrights would use in the opening scenes of a play. This makes sense, since Herzog is an emotional archeologist digging deep into the center of what makes people tic and connect.
If I’ve made Miles sound like work, let me assure you that the rewards greatly outweigh the challenges afoot. If there is any problem with the play, it’s that there isn’t enough of it. I would have liked to see a bit more of how Leo and Vera bridge the gap between them. Nonetheless, the marvelously intuitive performances of both Ebert and Wilson compensate for that breach, suggesting reservoirs of unspoken sorrow, shame, and fear. Ebert also demonstrates a terrific chemistry with all three of his female counterparts, which includes a spot-on Zoë Winters as the girlfriend Leo left behind.
Miles, meanwhile, shares none of Leo’s growing pains. It’s a mature play. The distance that Herzog has scaled from Revolution to Miles give me reason to believe that the arc of her career may prove to be one of the most instructional modern theater has yet to see.
Runs at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, thru June 17. www.lincolncenter.org $75.
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