4000 Miles: Theater Review

Debora Robinson/SCR
Dutifully upholstered family drama denuded of most of its essences by a stubborn refusal to develop its themes. 

A past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama arrives in Orange County.

Negative virtues are desirable only up to a point. 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog (After the Revolution, Belleville) a critical success at Lincoln Center in 2011, spurns melodrama, speaks its thoughts almost entirely by indirection, eschews dramatic transformations and sidesteps confrontation. It’s subtle to the point of indistinct. Just as a ferocious commitment to avoid cliches inevitably keeps those cliches as dictating references, so too an obsessive determination not to hit points home can nevertheless ostentatiously invoke the muffled sound of the unused hammer.

At 3 a.m., a deeply distressed Leo (Matt Caplan) awakens his 91-year-old grandmother Vera (Jenny O’Hara) in her enviable Greenwich Village apartment. Leo has been missing without word, finishing a cross-continent bicycle trek he had started with his best friend, who was killed in an absurd accident along the way. Sweaty, smelly and agitated, Leo desperately needs refuge, though he is at pains to reject it at first. Vera, a long-widowed fellow traveler, astutely minimizes her inquiries and interference, though not without expressing her own concerns. Over time, Leo opens up about his traumas and disappointments and begins to embark on some kind of life for himself.

Herzog skillfully mines the inherent intrigue of this potentially heady setup, and her discreet technique at first inspires confidence that she will not set a foot wrong. That she does not, but in the process those cautious steps do not take us very far. The dialogue may be admirably organic and the tone persuasively naturalistic. The characters are intrinsically interesting, though progressively less so the more time we spend with them. After 4000 Miles, we’ve yet to actually traverse a mile in their shoes.

Conceptually, Vera could be quite a rich mine of complicated emotions and ideas. Though her intellectual acuity is fading, and she remembers little of her sustaining Marxist doctrine beyond some sentimental reduction of being a community required to manage to get along with one another, she is a sensitive and committed good old New Yorker, barely cranky enough to be a sketched quirk. The fertile subject of aging leftists with a contentious political history both glorious and shameful gets short shrift, as does the vein of her neighborhood’s fascinating social background. At this age, Vera essentially lives in the present, mostly failing to dredge up the fascination of her obviously engaged and fulfilling past. The compulsively watchable O’Hara, a splendid actor having a great latter-career run (Bakersfield Mist, A Skull in Connemara, Our Mother’s Brief Affair), commands affection and sympathy and keeps the muted proceedings from dimming our attention.

For his part, Leo, suffused in trauma, behaves rather the pill, only to heal so slightly and gradually under his grandmother’s restrained patience. His meetings with his former girlfriend Bec (Rebecca Mozo) singe with desperation and regret, while her emotional candor offers a bracing alternative to his ongoing pity party. Mozo, one of the busiest young actors on our stages (I’ve lost count after more than 14 roles in the last few years), may be unaccountably cast as “chubby,” but her forthright grounding decisively marks Bec as the one who got away. Caplan conveys an honest sense of a soul in torment, full of commitment yet utterly lacking in direction or purpose.

There’s no question that Herzog is a playwright of genuine sensibility with a talent for empathy and a praiseworthy ear. Like Leo, she needs to be bolder, take stronger risks, dare to fail, not necessarily to take on bigger themes, but to work them harder and push beyond token lapidary craft.

Venue: South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (through Nov. 17)

Cast: Jenny O’Hara, Matt Caplan, Rebecca Mozo, Klarissa Mesee

Director: David Emmes

Writer: Amy Herzog

Scenic Design: Ralph Funicello

Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz

Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers

Costume Design: Sara Ryung Clement