After smoking some weed with her 21-year-old grandson, a 91-year-old matron matter-of-factly discusses the intimate facts of her life. She's sitting on an old couch in her Manhattan apartment while a solemn Karl Marx photo hangs on the wall behind her. "Neither of my husbands ever satisfied me," she says. "Sexually, that is." Soon she and the boy begin giggling like teenage stoners.
It is the best and also most telling moment of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, which opened last weekend at GableStage. The play is a delight, filled with contradiction, subplots, and the profundity of coming of age after a horrible tragedy. It's funny, beautifully staged, and smartly written.
There's a weakness, though. One actor's generally stiff performance holds back a clever show that would otherwise stand among GableStage's best. But more on that later.
Herzog is a contemporary of Miami theater genius Tarell Alvin McCraney. The pair attended the Yale University School of Drama and together are part of what Los Angeles Times drama critic Charles McNulty recently called a "green sprout movement" in theater, introducing the thoughts of a younger generation to an industry in need of new blood.
Herzog's 4000 Miles, which debuted in New York in 2011, tells the story of Leo Joseph-Connell (Michael Focas), a kid from Saint Paul, Minnesota, who drops out of college to bicycle across the country with his best friend, Micah. The two depart from Seattle, but Micah is killed when the trailer of a truck pulling a bunch of chickens detaches on the highway.
Rather than attend the funeral, Leo continues riding until he reaches Manhattan, where his grandmother, Vera (Harriet Oser), lives alone after the death of her Communist activist husband, Joe.
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The play parallels the family history of Herzog, whose Communist-sympathizer grandfather, Joe Joseph, shared U.S. government secrets with Russia during World War II.
Vera, perhaps like Herzog's grandma, is lonely and separated from her children. Most of her aging friends are dead. She's worried about "losing her words" as old age sets in, but is enlivened by the arrival of Leo, who shows up at her apartment at 3 a.m. Wearing jeans and a flannel shirt (odd attire for someone ending a 4,000-mile bike ride from Seattle, but whatever), Leo begins a relationship with her that, in the end, comforts both of them.