There are moments in Hampton Theatre Company’s production of “4000 Miles” that evoked memories of interactions with my mother—her wonder at new technology, her increasing frailty, her surprising revelations, introducing her to marijuana, and with some chagrin but most poignantly, the exasperation I felt after a visit of several days.
Playwright Amy Herzog has these generational clashes and exchanges down as fittingly as a cozy comforter on an antique bed. Rather than mother and child, the two characters whose relationship sustains the drama are a 91-year-old grandmother, Vera Joseph, and her 20-something grandson Leo, a floundering millennial trying to figure out what’s next.
At the moment, he’s rather on the run from making adult decisions—he’s dropped out of college, is at the tail end of a romantic relationship, and is literally racing away from an incident where he proved to be less than a stand-up guy. Reeking and filthy, he shows up in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment in need of a shower, a bed and cash. He’s just cycled cross country from Seattle.
Grandma Vera takes him in, few questions asked. She is an old leftie who is ready to give him the space and distance he needs while he figures out his life. A stalwart mainstay of the Quogue company, Diana Marbury as Vera draws a vivid, engaging portrait of a still feisty widow near the end of her life. Her existence is normally filled with quotidian acts such as the laundry and checking on her neighbor across the hall to make sure if they go “toes up,” the other will call the ambulance before the odor informs everyone in the building. Always competent in the many performances local audiences have seen her in, Ms. Marbury just may have found the role of her life. She shuffles, she’s in need of her hearing aid and her teeth, but she’s also the grandma that everyone wishes to have.
Ben Schnickel as grandson Leo is harder to appreciate precisely because he is so unfocused. While that vacant quality suffuses his performance nearly to the point of the adult audience’s exasperation—they are, er, largely seniors who winter here—a Gen Y or millennial still in search of the meaning of life will get him. Grandparents dealing with their own Leo-like grandchildren may find the play both enlightening and gently humorous.
As the scenes unfold—10 of them without intermission—we learn he’s been out of touch with his family in St. Paul, and his girlfriend (Amanda Griemsmann) is breaking up with him. He’s so hapless he can’t even carry off a one-night stand with the vivacious rich girl he brings home one night.
New to the company, Samantha Herrera is hilarious in her single scene as the self-described wealthy and slutty art student (at Parsons, where else?)
But the reveal at the heart of the play that should give it heft is by itself insubstantial and feels added for dramatic effect alone, not as a natural or surprising tragedy. Leo’s act of omission on the bike trip—not attending the funeral of his friend who was going cross-country with him—is not big enough to carry the weight the script foists upon it. How his friend died is itself absurdist and you can’t decide whether to laugh or not, for after all, his friend is dead. When he fesses up to Vera about what happened, you are left wondering: Is that all there is?
Even Sarah Hunnewell’s scrupulous direction of a play that certainly has its tender moments couldn’t cover up this hole at its center. Consequently, Leo’s redeeming act a scene or two later doesn’t seem to matter much as he begins to get his life together, starting with finding a job.
Ah, the set. One again the mother-and-son team of Sean Marbury (set design) and his mother Diana (décor) have concocted a totally believable Greenwich Village apartment of someone who’s been there for eons—books, a mashup of art work, a radiator, a ’60s-style peace symbol, a wall phone with a long cord, well-worn cozy furniture, an end table that looks like it belongs to the tramp school. All perfect.
Though the awards and accolades have been piled on “4000 Miles”—a 2012 Obie for Best New American Play, finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013—this is one critic whose vote it wouldn’t have gotten. Though at times evocative, “4000 Miles” is much ado about not much.
“4000 Miles” continues Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through January 29 at Quogue Community Hall. An additional matinée will be offered Saturday, January 28, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors (excluding Saturday evenings) and $10 for students under age 21. New this season, admission is only $15 for anyone under 35 with ID. For more information, visit hamptontheatre.org or call 1-866-811-4111.
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One fine body…