SAN FRANCISCO — Amy Herzog, a breath of fresh air on the playwriting scene, shapes her plays out of the missing pieces of conversations, the resonant silences that suggest that emotion is both too heavy and too slippery for words.
In "4000 Miles," which is receiving a superb production at American Conservatory Theater under the direction of Mark Rucker, Herzog sets up different barriers to communication for her two main characters.
Both are defined to a large extent by what they don't say — by their verbal retreats and half-conscious evasions, and by their ability to withstand the empty sound of their own bewilderment.
For 91-year-old Vera (Susan Blommaert), the problem isn't just that age has made it hard for her to find her words, as she's always complaining, or that she can't hear a thing without her hearing aid. Opinionated as she is, she has lived too long and seen too much to rush in with advice in situations that require the other person to figure things out for himself.
For Leo (Reggie Gowland), Vera's 21-year-old grandson who has just cycled from Seattle to her Greenwich Village apartment, the issue is more existential in that characteristic way of adolescents who are feeling disillusioned by the menu of choices available to them as they stumble into adulthood.
Leo is also in the throes of grief, mourning the death of a close friend who was killed in a freak traffic accident during the cross-country bike trip that has brought him to New York for an indefinite stay at his grandmother's rent-controlled apartment. One of the conditions of his visit is that his grandmother, an old lefty whose memory is deserting her, not tell his mother where he is. He has not only dropped out of college but he's also on the lam from the privileged life his parents have created for him, a life that now strikes this free-spirited romantic as an imprisoning lie.
"4000 Miles" isn't on the surface a particularly daring play. A coming-of-age drama that finds laughter in cockeyed yet utterly believable detail, the work is set in a single domestic setting (Vera's retro apartment is vividly created by scenic designer Erik Flatmo) and proceeds in duologues, two people talking to each other or around each other, as is more often the case with Herzog's playwriting.
But the work is so richly inhabited that it transcends the quirky familiarity of its genre. So what's taking so long for "4000 Miles" to reach L.A.? Herzog, who just scored another success off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons with "The Great God Pan," is, along with fellow dramatists Annie Baker and Tarell Alvin McCraney, part of a green shoots movement in the American theater. Perhaps Center Theatre Group or Geffen Playhouse would consider producing "4000 Miles" with "After the Revolution," the play in which Vera, a surrogate for the playwright's grandmother, first appears?
Vera is a character who reveals new facets each time I encounter her. (The first time was in New York, in a Lincoln Center Theater production with the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson in the role.) Herzog doesn't sentimentalize her, but neither does she stand in judgment. Vera's virtues and foibles are allowed to peacefully coexist and even contradict each other.
An egalitarian idealist, she makes surprisingly insensitive remarks about Bec (a rock solid Julia Lawler), Leo's estranged girlfriend who is studying in New York and none too eager to resume their relationship. Vera keeps referring to the normal-sized Bec as "chubby," enraging Leo, who is still in love, and demonstrating that heightened political awareness doesn't necessarily extend across all categories.
In one of the play's liveliest scenes, Leo brings home Amanda (a sparkling Camille Mana), whom he picked up at a club to help him momentarily forget Bec. His interest is purely sexual — the feelings of this fashion-crazed college student matter as little to him as the feelings of his grandmother, who is asleep in the next room.
But Amanda, a Chinese American whose parents left China to escape governmental oppression, is turned off by all the Marxist literature lying around and not sure she should "get it on in a communist's apartment."
"A lot of people were communists back then, " Leo, the self-styled 21st century radical, replies, distancing himself from his late grandfather, a left wing intellectual whose book on Cuba he's been reading. "It was like, it was like … recycling, or whatever."
Where lesser playwrights might decide between ideologies, Herzog keeps digging for ironies — a habit one hopes she never grows out of as she matures as a writer. "4000 Miles" is a satisfying, audience-friendly drama, but there are moments when the author's relative inexperience cracks through.
The play occasionally lapses into rhetoric (as when Bec acknowledges that she's "just irretrievably sad right now") and opts for calculated theatrical gestures (as when Leo's confessional monologue turns out to fall literally on deaf ears). Also, the politics are more interesting on a psychological than sociological level — like so much contemporary American drama, the comparatively advantaged individual trumps the patchwork collective.
Yet "4000 Miles" is filled with unexpected delights, including an ingeniously handled scene in which Leo and Vera get stoned and share sexual secrets. And even the play's more wayward touches (such as the subject of Leo's inappropriate closeness with his adopted sister back home) are never gratuitous but always connected to central themes. Most impressive of all, the characters become clearer and more complex over time — a gift to the performers in Rucker's dexterous production.
Blommaert doesn't play "old" — she plays a specific woman whose creaking body and slightly foggy mind obstruct but can't blunt her sharp individuality. Her Vera is as compassionate as she is cantankerous, as wise as she is sometimes babyish. In short, someone you could easily be living next door to — a neighbor whose independence keeps you at a briskly cordial remove.
Gowland is an actor I predict you will be hearing much about in the years to come. He has that quality that distinguishes true talents — unbreakable concentration. It's possible to see him thinking Leo's thoughts, to catch him wandering in the maze of his character's dilemma: how to be true to himself while recognizing his responsibilities to others.
"4000 Miles" doesn't pretend to have the answers, but it leaves us with much to ponder about life's marathon journey, which, as Vera is there to assure Leo at his crossroads, lasts as long as you're in the race.
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