Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Photo Erin Baiano
When it played at The Duke on 42nd Street last year, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles was lauded for its sensitivity in portraying the relationship between a grandmother (Mary Louise Wilson) and grandson (Gabriel Ebert), and it has now been transferred to Lincoln Center (through June 17). It is not a sentimental play about old age and youth coming to terms with each other, but neither is it a play that will disturb anyone on any level; seeing the unforced, lived-in relations created between Wilson and Ebert is a pleasure, but a very modest pleasure. What struck me most about this play, which is a deserved mid-level success, is that the more time we spend with Wilson’s Vera, an old-time socialist with two marriages behind her, the more indistinct she is as a character. She almost fades away the more we scrutinize her, and this is a problem for a play that places so much emphasis on this woman’s interactions with her troubled grandson. There seems to be another play here, a play about youthful tragedies and dead ends, and the outlines of this play are frustratingly visible underneath the more conventional drama being enacted by Wilson and Ebert.
Put it this way: Ebert’s Leo brings home a young girl from a bar, Amanda (Greta Lee), a vibrant Chinese-American striver in platform shoes, and in one burst of Herzog’s writing and Lee’s acting, we get a vivid sense of this character, who she is, what she can do and might do. 4000 Miles comes alive while Amanda is on stage, but she only gets that one scene to jump out at us. This is a character that clearly demands a whole play, but Herzog brings us right back to Vera and Leo, talking and understanding and misunderstanding and then understanding each other again. There’s a real sense of pain and unrest in Leo’s scenes with his not-quite-former-girlfriend Bec (Zoë Winters), and when Leo finally confesses all the details of his best friend’s death, the reason why he is in such turmoil, the speech is so beautifully and evocatively written and played that a whole world opens up for us. And then Herzog brings us right back to grandmother and grandson politely relating to each other.
4000 Miles has other urges, but it keeps settling back into being something milky and standard, something for Lincoln Center, something for a star actress. Which is not to say that Wilson isn’t very fine and open as Vera, birdlike yet unfussy. Herzog has avoided all of the pitfalls of writing an elderly character in relation to a younger one, but in avoiding those pitfalls so scrupulously, it finally feels like that’s all she’s doing. I can understand her urge to bring Leo toward some kind of responsibility and maturity, but this optimism feels more willed than anything else, and it goes against the hints of the other possible play here, the play about being young and wild but also scared, the play about reaching for utopia and having your hand bitten clean off in return.