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4000 Miles

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson
Photo by Erin Baiano

For a crystalline study of how two actors can triumph amid surroundings that don't, one needs look no further than 4000 Miles. Amy Herzog's play, which Lincoln Center Theater is resuscitating at the Mitzi E. Newhouse after a previous Off-Broadway run last summer as part of the LCT3 program, may be ungainly and unlikeable, but neither Gabriel Ebert nor Mary Louise Wilson ever lets on or falls victim to it. With the aid of director Daniel Aukin, they display a masterful talent for eliciting warmth from a brick of solid ice.

His looming, lanky frame made up to look more unkempt than usual, Ebert plays Leo, a college student who's ridden his bike to his grandmother Vera's Manhattan apartment, something that's notable primarily because he began pedaling in Seattle. Leo is a young man with a lot on his mind—he's recently had falling-outs with his sister and his girlfriend, and lost his best friend in another way—and is fighting to control the bitterness, disappointment, and, well, horniness these setbacks are inspiring. Ebert, who's becoming an increasingly visible fixture in the Off-Broadway scene (he last appeared as the lead in Roundabout's Suicide, Incorporated), makes Leo's confusion and colliding emotions natural. He genuinely wants the best for himself and those around him, but Ebert invests him with enough innate awkwardness so that reasonable goal also seem believably elusive.

Wilson, meanwhile, tackles the role of Vera with a cagey blend of loss and anger all her own that brand her and Leo as obvious blood relatives. The octogenarian Vera spends much of her time stumbling over her words and thoughts, or misreading others' motives (invariably for the worse), but Wilson projects just enough sweetness to temper her sour nature and present it as simply an easy-to-overcome roadblock on Vera's journey through her twilight years. Wilson gives her trembling hands and a systemic fragility, and pushes her scripted disregard for conventions and unique sense of propriety to the utmost—Vera could be any grandmother, or every grandmother, who's ever tried to reach across two generations to forge a lasting bond with the people who will be at the front lines of the future.

Leo and Vera interact in a variety of ways that suggest the surprising depth they share, from wispy small talk to fraught late-night heart-to-hearts about sex and longing to confrontations concerning subjects as diverse as money, door locks, and bathroom faucets. They're quite a pair, and the actors, who have only grown in their roles since June, make it clear that their characters understand each other as no one else does. They're soul mates, in a way, united by a social open-mindedness and political similarities (she's literally a card-carrying Communist, whereas he merely admires Karl Marx's philosophies) and a sense of disconnection from their joint family. It's difficult to watch Ebert and Wilson and not appreciate the craft they demonstrate in building such a beautiful, believable foundation atop which these two can erect their framework of love.

Unfortunately, the actors and director must expend all this effort because of how little Herzog has started them off with. For the amount of time spent focusing on Leo and Vera, Herzog reveals little of substance about them, and shunts most of their traits (especially on Leo's side) into the second half of the show so she can have the requisite "big reveals" later. But none of the revelations is startling, and the one that's supposed to provide the most powerful dramatic punch is so cheekily composed, overwrought, and extraneously shoved into the narrative that it's more apt to encourage titters than tears—the wrong tack for something that the playwright intends as the climactic speech of the show. (None of this is to fault Ebert, who delivers the speech about it with an admirable conviction.)

Everything else about the evening is arid and unruly, both in terms of how it shoehorns in Bec (ZoĆ« Winters), Leo's almost-ex-girlfriend, and Amanda (Greta Lee), his almost-one-night-stand, and how it develops Leo and Vera's relationship—it doesn't. They begin with a certain set of feelings, end with a nearly identical one, and spend much of their in-between time accusing and bickering and existing in their own little bubbles that show neither is particularly interested in changing his or her ways. Sure, there's some tenderness, but it's typically an afterthought. Leo's inclination, for instance, to bark swear words (and not mild ones) at Vera in every scene doesn't suggest a mutual platform of respect. So how can they realistically be so lovey-dovey just moments later?

The answer is simple: Herzog wants moments of both tension and warm fuzziness, but has scant interest in drawing the lines that connect the two. The jagged nature of the narrative, which apparently covers a few weeks (though it's hard to tell for sure), prevents you from easily orienting yourself or sympathizing with Leo and Vera as written. (And forget about Bec and Amanda—the actresses do their best, but can't elevate them beyond hoary devices.) Aukin smooths over what he can, often with scenic effects or changes that extend the story (at least until the abrupt, bewildering ending), but the whole thing remains what it's been since its premiere: an unpleasant, unfocused mess that demands responses from you it lacks the patience to provoke organically.

One can appreciate Herzog's passion for her own grandmother, on whom she directly based Vera both here and in her previous play After the Revolution, but it hasn't translated into a tight, thoughtful theatre piece; it is, at best, a wobbly reprobation about how little we say to each other while we have the chance. The fine work of Aukin, set designer Lauren Halpern (whose chilly but cozy apartment is just right for Vera), and lighting designer Japhy Weideman (who's painted gorgeous landscapes of cityscape illumination, if ones that are sometimes dimmer than is theatrically ideal) helps 4000 Miles considerably, but it's ultimately Ebert and Wilson who are indispensable, communicating with grace the suppleness of feeling and humanity Herzog herself did not bother to supply.

4000 Miles
Through May 20
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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