MARY LOUISE WILSON AND GABRIEL EBERT PORTRAY A POT SMOKING 91-YEAR-OLD GRANDMOTHER AND HER 21-YEAR-OLD GRANDSON IN A PLAY EVERYONE SEEMS TO LOVE
BY HENRY EDWARDS
Irritated by the spectacles that have been a mainstay of the commercial theatre, critics often tend to bend over backwards in praise of productions that are models of simplicity and lack any semblance of adornment.
Such was the case with Amy Herzog’s lovely (and lengthy) one-act play, “4000 Miles,” when Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program (devoted to work by new theatre artists) debuted it at The Duke on 42nd St. last summer.
The critical reaction has accurately been characterized as "mixed-to-very-positive." Yet the "very positives" were extraordinarily positive, lauding Herzog's effort as an “altogether wonderful drama,” a “rich, satisfying play” and a "modest, well-observed gem."
Understandably, theatergoers rushed to The Duke, and in no time at all, the three-week engagement was completely sold out.
In response to the demand (mostlyunsatisfied), LCT had no choice but to mount a new edition of the production. And that is exactly what it did.
On April 2, "4000 Miles" launched its second life at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre on the Lincoln Center campus.
Charles Isherwood of The New York Times had adored the play the first time, and nothing had changed for him this time around. “Plays as truthful and touching and fine as Amy Herzog’s ‘4000 Miles’ come along once or maybe twice a season, if we’re lucky," the critic declared. "This is the rare theatrical production that achieves perfection on its own terms.”
"4000 Miles" is essentially a two-character play (although two other speaking characters turn up along the way), and it was to playwright Herzog's good fortune to have Broadway's beloved Mary Louise Wilson and Gabriel Ebert take on her two primary characters.
Wilson, a Tony award winner for her unforgettable Big Edie in "Grey Gardens," portrays 91-year-old peace activist, card-carrying Communist and the only surviving member of a group of lefty octogenerians, Vera Joseph; Gabriel Ebert is Vera's dirty, disheveled, agonized 21-year-old grandson, Leo.
Both are superb.
What triggers what little action there is in the play stems from Leo's arrival at Vera's rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment at three in the morning, having bicycled 4,000 miles from Seattle to New York.
In situations like that, what exactly is a grandmother to do? Of course, Vera allows the young man to stay. Thus begins a play that seemingly is a variation on "The Odd Couple" and its mismatched roomates, but really isn't.
Although both characters are destined to change as a result of living together, "4000 Miles" is essentially plotless, offering a series of moments that mysteriously come together to make a heartfelt point about human connections.
The best of those moments may be the scene when Leo smokes pot with his grandmother, and they discuss their sex lives, among other things, and spanning the generation gap and a host of cultural differences, they proceed to develop a richer, deeper emotional connection.
Along the way, Leo also receives visits from a girlfriend, Bec, who switches between tenderness and fierceness with mindboggling rapidity. Zoë Winters is absolutely terrific in the part. Greta Lee has another zany turn as a pickup that Leo tries to bed.
As the play nears its conclusion, Leo confides the horrendous events that occurred during his biking trip. However, when the youth finally does reveal those details, they sound contrived. It is to the great of both actors that they play this artificial climax with the utmost conviction.
As Leo is about to take his leave, the audience takes one last look at grandmother and grandson, and in some mysterious way, they have become friends, friends that one cares about.
Mary Louise Wilson, demonstrating the effects extreme age has on Vera and yet remaining sharp as a tack and a tough but caring cookie, offers a textbook demonstration of the very best acting, literally living as her character during her time onstage.
The character of Leo presents a much greater challenge for Ebert. Leo is boorish, pretentious, self-involved, unfocused, and not very likeable. To Ebert's credit, he never reaches for sympathy.
Infact nothing in the play, to the credit of everyone involved, trades on sentimentality.
Director Daniel Aukin has run the tightest of ships, and not a single drop of excess has been allowed to intrude upon the proceedings.
At 105 minutes, "4000 Miles" demands a lot of sitting for something this slim. Determinedly non-dramatic, anecdotal in nature and far more of a mood piece than a play, “4000 Miles” is mild mannered and lovely. And it's wonderfully acted.
Originally scheduled to run through May 20 at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, “4000 Miles” has been extended to June 17.