4000 Miles, by Amy Herzog. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"It must have been cool to be so uncritical."
Gregory Boover and Annette Miller; Photo: Christoper Duggan
No one in Amy Herzog's play "4000 Miles" is ever not critical.Vera Joseph is highly critical of her grandson, his girlfriend, his parents, her neighbor and friend, clothing, food, transportation, and decisions. Leo Joseph-Connell, her 70 year younger grandson is critical of his parents, New York City, school, work, travel, his ex-girlfriend, his new girl-friend, his parents, his grandmother and her life choices. It seems to be a genetic thing in the Joseph family. The girl who won't go out with him anymore, Bec, is critical so there must be an attraction to this sort of behavior and even the pick-up girl Lee drags home to his grandmother's apartment, though drunk, is critical of him, the apartment and anything else that comes up during their time together, so it must rub off. This play is about critical people and the things they find to criticize. For just under two hours on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, everyone is critical. So I will be critical, too.
Vera's club, friends in their eighties, have dropped to a single friend, the woman across the hall. While Vera is highly critical of her friend's lifestyle she still indulges in the nightly phone call which reassures each of them that the other is still alive. When her grandson, at the mid-point in his coast to coast bike ride, shows up at her door seeking a night's refuge, Vera is a combination of thrilled, angry, disturbed, upset and - you guessed it - critical of his choices. Without many options Leo makes her apartment his permanent temporary home and they settle in together in an oddly inappropriate set of ways. It is this growing relationship that is at the core of the play and is what sparks most of the interest in its slow-goings-on.
Annette Miller, in one of the best character roles of her career, brings every human emotion and facial expression into play as Vera. She has developed her character with physical movement and a stooped body and busy hands that accomplish nothing and yet keep our attention on her every minute she is on stage.Miller has literally grown her character from the words on the page into a veritable "Little Shop" plant that demands attention, requires blood and guts and wounds and pain and soul and love no matter what she does or says. In her talented hands Vera is a very young old woman who cannot survive without the attention of someone she might care about if she took a moment and when she finally does, in two scenes late in the play, she is transformed into the grandmother of your dreams. She becomes someone who does things, unexpected things. Doing them makes her whole again, makes her vital and amazingly spry. Miller, far too young for Vera's 90+ years, gives a strong reality to becoming the last survivor in her circle of acquaintances.
Gregory Boover is her foil, her grandson, her ersatz companion. That he isn't perceived by her as her latent late-life lover is due entirely to his wonderful method of keeping her at arms-distance, literally. When they do physically connect it is with that special affection a younger man feels for his esteemed elders. He plays disaffection masterfully. Similarly he plays misplaced affection with a realism that is very nice to see. As Leo he brings simplicity to the complex relationship espoused by Miller as Vera. There is no sense of complicity in their keeping his presence a secret from their family. There is his strength of conviction and her strength of imposed guilt which he refuses to suffer.
When they do get confidential and cozy there is a humor in their conversation that feels almost improvisatory. Here the director, Nicole Ricciardi has allowed her actors to embody the spirit of the 1970s, a time when he was barely a human flicker and she was in her prime. Even so they both seem to be the same age and of the same mind, less critical than usual and more primal, an appropriate emotional state for both of them. It is a problem for me that by the time they reach this point in the play the play is already feeling long and overwritten. This is a nice break before the final scenes.
In the middle of all this critical pallaver, a young Chinese woman named Amanda enters the scene, a bar pick-up Leo brings home for a little fooling around. Zoë Laiz plays the girl whose design probabilities at Parsons School are clearly visible in her personal wardrobe. Laiz is a charmer, whose laughter and broad picture playing make Amanda the perfect match for the laid-back Leo. She is almost non-stop movement, sexual energy personified. Verbally she throws Amanda in our faces as she says this, that and the other thing in rapid succession. Her scene bring the play, and its anti-hero Leo, to life for twelve or so minutes and Laiz presents a character that Herzog should revisit some time and perhaps even invest in her own play. For me this scene was the highlight of the show and if Vera's place in heaven is assured by her entrance and exit in this erotic moment, that is due in part to Miller's delicious reactive technique. In the words of another character in a Noël Coward song in another play, "I couldn't have liked it more!"
Gregory Boover and Zoe Laiz; photo: Christopher Duggan
Emma Geer and Annette Miller; photo: Christopher Duggan
Things couldn't slow down more than they do when Leo''s non-girlfiend puts in her two appearances. Emma Geer's version of Bec is of a dour, unfeeling young woman who feels that her presence is a requirement and not the end-result of a desire. Like the others she is critical: critical of Leo and Vera and life itself. In the parlance of the times, she is a drag (and not in a good, amusing or fascinating way). Geer's performance is solid and communicative of this personality and her two scenes nearly stop the play dead in its tracks. Bec leaves him few options and fewer choices and this grinds the play to a veritable halt. I haven't liked this character in other editions of the play and Ricciardi hasn't found a way to make her vibrant or alive. She is the modern death and this play can't handle that sort of death, dealing as it does with the deaths of others. I think it great that Vera does not like or approve of Bec. In their scene together there is only one person alive, and I give you one guess who that person is, that youthful and vibrant person.
Shakespeare & Company's oddly designed New York apartment, courtesy of John McDermott, works as well as it possibly can. Stella Schwartz's fine costumes help each actor with her or his personality. James W. Bilnoski's lighting shows us that he knows the difference between night and day and nowadays that is a major accomplishment. Amy Altadonna does well with her sound choices. Nicole Ricciardi has taken a quirky play and given it a normalcy that is both charming and tiring. She deals with the concept of critical folks with generation disparity as well as can be expected and except for those spots where the play itself lags, she keeps us interested, particularly when Miller hold the stage, rarely in center, but always moving that spot in her own direction.
"4000 Miles" will never be my favorite play, but this production provides enough to hold my interest and proves itself a worthy show to open this company's 40th season. The title is even an apparent homage to Shake&Co's longevity and hopefully to its future as well. Talented people are at work here. They make the every day interesting and the fascinating obsessive. Critically I would say that makes a worthwhile one hundred and three minutes of theater.
4000 Miles plays on the Elayne P. Bernstein Stage at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through July 16. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.