Friday, March 30, 2012

theatre review 4,000 MILES, Off Broadway, March 25

Amy Herzog's play 4,000 Miles is ultimately a drama about death and it's affects on people.  While that might seem like a downer of a show, it is also one of the funniest, freshest and most realistic plays I've seen in a while.  Set in modern Manhattan and with two excellent performances at its core, 4,000 Miles officially opens this coming Monday night.

The play begins late one night at 3am when Vera's grandson Leo arrives on her West Village apartment doorstep.  He has just ended a trek across the country on his bike, hence the title of the play, and after being turned away by his girlfriend, needs a place to stay.  He doesn't know how long he will stay, maybe just a day or two, but Vera takes him in and once Leo sees just how alone his grandmother is and since he has no immediate plans, he decides to stay for awhile. Over the course of the next 100 minutes, we see how these two people, even though they are seventy years apart in age, need each other to survive and how real love and compassion don't need to be overtly stated out loud.

Mary Louise Wilson
Mary Louise Wilson as Vera is giving one of the best performances in a play currently in New York.  She so perfectly captures the feelings, desperation and mundane day to day existence that your typical 90 year old grandmother goes through.   Whether it is her constant talk about the laundry, the bickering phone calls with her neighbor and daughter, the way she is always taking her hearing aid out and putting it back in or how when Leo first shows up she rushes off to put her teeth in, Wilson rings every comic nuance and dramatic moment of reality out of the part.  But where she really excels is in her ability to not over dramatize the dread of death.  Sure she is frustrated when she can't remember the words she wants to say or when her hands shake when taking a teacup to the table, but Vera keeps fighting on.  Almost all of Vera's friends are gone, she even comments that she's the last one in her Octogenarian club left, but Vera is still so concerned about life, and not just her life but Leo's life as well.  You see, Leo is just as haunted by death as Vera due to a recent tragedy that is hinted at throughout the play and that we don't fully learn the specifics about toward the end of the play.  That moment, in a scene so cleanly written and directed shows how precious life is and that death can come when least expected.

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson
Gabriel Ebert is also excellent as Leo.  He is just as much an independent soul as his grandmother but the tenderness he brings to the part and the interactions with Wilson are extremely touching.  Ebert perfectly captures the lost boy who doesn't quite know what to do with his life when tragedy strikes.  And while this is a part we've seen numerous times before, Ebert provides enough nuance to it to make it seem fresh and new.

Also in the cast are Zoe Winters as Leo's girlfriend and Greta Lee as a student he picks up one night and brings back to the apartment.  Both are small roles but serve a purpose in the events of the play.  Winters has two key moments in the play and it is nice to see how she reacts to the changes she sees in Leo over the course of her visits to Vera's apartment.  Lee gets some great comic moments to play and delivers them effortlessly.

This play with this cast had a previous limited run last Summer before Lincoln Center remounted it uptown at its Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.  Daniel Aukin directs this production with a light touch, allowing the words and performances to shine through.  The set design by Lauren Helpern evokes a lovely multi room Manhattan apartment with all of the items a 90 year old person would have accumulated over the years.  I especially liked the use of two filing cabinets as end tables.  Japhy Weideman's lighting design is truly magical.  The effect Weideman creates for various times of the day from early morning to late night is stunning on the Newhouse stage.  And that scene I mentioned before, where Leo tells Vera the specific details of his recent tragedy, are lit in shadows that provide an intimate, almost dreamlike and surreal moment to really make the scene pop.  Like Other Desert Cities when it was at the Mitzi Newhouse last year, with 4,000 Miles you feel like you are sitting on a couch in Vera's apartment as the events unfold before you.   I truly love how intimate the Newhouse stage is.

Now for a one act play there is a lot that goes on in 4,000 Miles including some things that aren't fully fleshed out.  I'm not sure if that was Herzog's intention or not as not everything has to be resolved or serve a purpose to the play's overall plot.  There is much talk about Vera's being a communist that provides some humor and helps flesh out her back story but I didn't quite get if we were to somehow make a connection with Vera's political past and Leo's current views on life.  Also, there is some discussion around Leo's relationship with his sister that is mentioned  in a scene between Leo and Vera and then we see Leo skyping with his sister, but we never really know exactly what to make of that relationship.  The play also has a somewhat mellow ending, focusing more on the simple life of Vera's next door neighbor that while it might somehow be meant to relate back to Vera and Leo it didn't quite connect with me.  But still, with Mary Louise Wilson's performance I highly recommend 4,000 Miles.

Official Show Site

An interview with Wilson and Ebert from last Summer's run of the play:

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