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.
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.
Leo's privileged, sometimes-drugged-out teenage years have led him into a dysfunctional romantic relationship with Bec (Kate O'Phalen), who has started college in New York. He's also in love with his adopted sister back in Minnesota, with whom he awkwardly Skypes on his grandmother's MacBook. (The sound in these conversations is kind of weird, but also whatever.)
The real heart of the play is the relationship between Leo and Vera, who opens her life and her rent-controlled apartment to her grandson and at the same time understands his many flaws. The grandmother is no shrinking violet, though, often calling out her grandson for dishonesty or acting immaturely. But she is also canny. She doesn't push Leo too hard. And as requested, she keeps the visit secret from his mom. In short, she provides the kind of thoughtful distance and wisdom that wise grandparents sometimes offer their grandkids when parents can't.
In the end, their conversations — along with another death, that of Vera's nosy and unpleasant neighbor — bring him to understand himself. This relationship is powerfully written with great humor. Oser's flawless technique makes it thoroughly believable and emotionally powerful. This extraordinarily talented actress, who has garnered at least ten Carbonell nominations over the years, is the best thing about this show. It's worth attending simply to see her tour de force. She becomes Vera in voice, gesture, and even the way she shuffles across the stage.
Focas's Leo is a lost character, representing a generation of young people searching for something more than just growing up and getting a job. He is fascinated by his grandfather's involvement in left-wing politics, but when forced to deal with the reality of the damage the ideology has done to China, Leo responds by calling Communism something people in the old days just had to do, "like recycling."
What we don't see from Focas, though, is angst. Troubled by his friend's death and, more profoundly, wrestling with the identity issues of a middle-class kid who wants something more from his life, Leo is a marvelous character. But Focas can't really pull it off. Unlike every other actor on the stage, his emotional range is narrow, which limits the empathy the audience develops for him. He has wonderful moments, including the aforementioned pot-smoking scene, but one senses he's acting the part too often. This is Focas's first equity performance, and he should grow as a performer before he garners another.
However, there are so many excellent aspects of 4000 Miles that this shortcoming seems minor. Wei-Lyi Lin does a superb job of playing a Chinese-American floozy whom Leo brings home. She's funny and fun to watch — a laugh a second. Lyle Baskin's set design is clever — a dial phone, an old couch, and an old-school kitchen providing an appropriately grandmotherly backdrop. I wish the set hadn't shaken as if it were about to fall when a door was slammed, though. Steve Welsh's lighting and Ellis Tillman's costumes, particularly that of Oser's Vera, also merit notice.
Herzog's play is good but imperfect. There are points where too much is explained, such as when Leo describes the accident and adds that a public relations lady demanded his camera. And the ending is abrupt. But overall, the pacing is perfect — a credit to Joseph Adler's always-brilliant direction. Herzog is a writer in her mid-30s whose talent is growing fast and who is clearly testing herself and her art form. I look forward to seeing more from her on local stages.
With its recent production of Hamlet and the planned staging of a Haitian-inspired Antony and Cleopatra, GableStage has entered a new period. It is working with some of the world's best theaters on these innovative dramas. While Herzog's play is a solid beginning, the theater must try harder and be more ambitious in its choices if it is to lead Miami to the top rung of American theater markets. Adler is to be congratulated for this formidable performance. Now he needs to aim even higher.