Monday, June 25, 2012

Young Twits: Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles

In Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, playing an extended run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a young man named Leo (Gabriel Ebert) lands on the Manhattan doorstep of his eighty-something grandmother Vera (Mary Louise Wilson) in the middle of the night after biking across the country. He’s a hippie, she’s an old-style Jewish leftist, and they’ve always had a companionable relationship. At this juncture she’s trying to cope with the ravages of age and he’s hiding out, avoiding his parents in St. Paul, avoiding dealing with the death of his best friend Micah on the trip, and attempting to pretend that nothing’s changed in his romantic relationship with Bec (Zoë Winters), who’s furious at him for not showing up at Micah’s funeral.

Herzog wrote one of the few compelling new plays of the 2010-2011 season, After the Revolution, which was lucky enough to receive a fine production at the Williamstown Theater Festival that was repeated in New York at Playwrights Horizons. After the Revolution made good on a terrific idea. Set at the end of the millennium, it was about a young woman, a third-generation Jewish leftist, who graduates from law school and starts a foundation dedicated to defending members of marginalized groups. (Her first cause is an attempt to get a new trial for an incarcerated Black Panther.) She names the foundation after her late grandfather, a cult hero among American Communists, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Then a new history of the period comes out that furnishes evidence that he was actually a Soviet spy. Herzog examines the issue from the point of view of the young woman, whose idealism is shattered, and from the point of view of her father, her uncle and her grandfather’s widow, who stick to the loyalties they’ve grown up with – and she refuses to resolve it. The play ends with the widow telling her step-granddaughter that, in taking an ethical stand against her grandfather, she’s no different from the American right-wingers who oppressed liberals and leftists in the fifties, and Herzog refuses to hold out hope that these two women can ever reconcile.

My impressions of After the Revolution sent me to Yale Repertory Theatre to check out Herzog’s next play, Belleville – about an unraveling relationship between a young American couple in Paris – last fall, but it turned out to be pretty terrible, and though 4000 Miles received glowing reviews, I didn’t care much for it either. The truth is that Herzog is much more skillful at creating middle-aged and old characters than at writing young ones. In After the Revolution, the lawyer and her Latino boy friend are underwritten, but they’re overshadowed by five other people with rich inner lives, and though the play is small-scale, it’s so thorny and complicated that it was easy to accept this flaw in the work of a playwright who’s still learning her craft. In 4000 Miles Vera is believably drawn, and Wilson, a clever, diminutive performer (she comes up to her co-star’s chest), gives an entertaining comic performance with a few touching grace notes. But it’s impossible to warm up to Leo, whose response when Vera tells him she doesn’t like to lie to his mother on the phone about his whereabouts is to criticize her, insisting that she can’t take on his mother’s neuroses. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his presence is forcing her to take them on – or that, however tangled his familial relationships may be, it’s hardly neurotic for a mother to worry about a son she has no way of contacting. (He doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer.) Leo thinks he’s open and trusting and that the problem is how guarded and repressed everyone else is; he won’t own up, for instance, to the effect of his inappropriate behavior to his kid sister, who adores him.

Gabriel Ebert & Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 Miles
There must be a way to make us care about this infuriating character, who is, after all, the protagonist: he’s the one who changes in the course of the play, facing the death of his friend Micah through the act of eulogizing a woman (Vera’s neighbor) he didn’t know and agreeing to go home to the Midwest to confront his family. But Herzog doesn’t make us care, and when two other characters of his age show up – first Bec and then Amanda (Greta Lee), whom he brings home to Vera’s one night in the hope of getting her into bed – and they’re both caricatures, you know the problem isn’t just the way the playwright has written Leo. Bec is solipsistic and self-righteous; she makes a speech about how hard it is to explain to right-handed fellow students who use the desks supplied for left-handed students like her that their thoughtless behavior just hurts themselves. Amanda, whose family fled China, freaks out when she finds out that Vera is a Communist, though what really makes her queasy about Vera is that she’s partly deaf and has false teeth.

Gabriel Ebert & Zoe Winters in 4000 Miles
The play includes a scene where Leo gets stoned with Vera and they talk about sex; it’s funny but I didn’t believe a word. And the setpiece monologue in which Leo finally reveals the details of Micah’s accident made me extremely uncomfortable, and not in a good way. Herzog holds back the information until quite late in the play, and it’s very gruesome, so you can’t help feeling manipulated – and that she’s somehow reveling in her own lurid inventiveness. (There’s a speech in Craig Lucas’s Blue Window – an acting-class perennial – where a woman describes a particularly grotesque accident that has a similar effect.)

None of the young actors in 4000 Miles is much good (Ebert gives an affected performance), and it would be unfair not to put some of the blame on the director, Daniel Aukin, for the play’s lack of dramatic balance; he could have worked with Winters and Lee to humanize their roles. The fact remains, though, that Herzog’s dramaturgy closes them out, and her handling of Leo is an insurmountable problem. I’d like to think that After the Revolution wasn’t a flash in the pan, but after Belleville and 4000 Miles, I think I need a little break from Amy Herzog.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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