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4000 Miles

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Playwright Amy Herzog made her big Off-Broadway splash late last year with After the Revolution, in which a college-age Communist, affected by her true-believe grandmother and the secrets of her grandfather, bucked the greater wishes of her family to find herself and solidify her personal moral standing. Well, Herzog is really stretching herself with her new play 4000 Miles, which just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program. In this one, a college-age socialist, affected by his true-believer grandmother and the secrets of his grandfather, bucks the greater wishes of his family to find himself and solidify his personal moral standing.

Maybe I'm exaggerating a little. After all, this play's central figure, named Leo and played by Gabriel Ebert, is more a free spirit, a modern-day hippy type, than he is an avowed wealth redistributor trying to come to terms with his family's decades-long pattern of lies. But the similarity between the works is striking nonetheless, and well beyond the broadest outlines of their stories. Both demand that you locate charm in thoroughly charmless young people, so you won't notice the airless, joyless nature of all that surrounds them. Director Daniel Aukin does everything he can to highlight the inherent likability of his cast, which also prominently features Mary Louise Wilson (best known in recent years as Big Edie in Grey Gardens) as Leo's progressive grandmother, but even perfume can quell the stench of ugliness for only so long.

The odor here emanates primarily from Leo, who's just arrived at grandma's Manhattan apartment following a leisurely bike ride—from Seattle. It was an eventful trip, but Leo isn't too anxious to talk about either his (very) close friend, Micah, with whom he made the journey, or his girlfriend, Bec (Zoe Winters), who lives in New York and is apparently none too eager to see him. So Leo holes up with his grandmother, who's having increasing trouble putting sentences together and wants nothing more than to see him safe and happy, and whom he of course shouts at and steals from at every opportunity.

Leo is also into borderline incest, though he's quick to point out that since his sister is Chinese and adopted, it doesn't really matter if he kissed her at a party when he was drunk. Nor is it especially relevant that he's ambisexual, as into the college girl (Greta Lee) he picks up in New York—she reminds him of his sister!—as he was Micah. Because experimenting is what all the cool kids do. Under the impression that they also watch their friends get squashed by chicken trucks (seriously) and then duck out on the funeral, Leo has become persona non grata with all his friends and the rest of his family in Minnesota. Hard to see why!

Structured as one big, non-judgmental justification of post-adolescent anxiety, 4000 Miles is highly unpleasant viewing—and not just because Leo's every new revelation makes you feel as if you need a shower. (Lauren Halpern's set, however, is as much a feast for the eyes as a middle-class New York condo can be; it's stuffed with tchotchke-bursting detail, though lighting designer Japhy Weideman is often too anxious with the dimmer switch to let you see as much of it as you may like.) As with her previous play, Herzog is more concerned with bare-wire ideas than thoughtful discourse, and more with incendiary moments than probing drama. The climax, such as it is, occurs when Leo and his grandmother bond early one morning over discussions of their sexual and emotional conquests. Herzog is trying to identify the undercurrent of how the generations have changed, particularly in their attitudes toward work and sex, but there's a desperation about the scene that doesn't bolster or develop any through lines, let alone any genuine entertainment.

Like the rest of the play and production, it's dead air: people saying things they wouldn't (or shouldn't) because the author isn't sure of what they should say or why they should say it. Grandma's babbling, Leo's constant callousness, and the barely sketched young women never make points about anything; yet you gain neither catharsis nor enlightenment from their lack of direction. Ebert approaches his role with a rough-edged affability, which makes Leo as easy to swallow as possible; and Wilson does everything in her power to balance grandma's bifurcated personality as both dirty old broad and loving matriarch. Even so, these are caricatures of idealistic open-mindedness, not fully developed characters unable to unearth their needs from each other.

At least 4000 Miles is more engaging than After the Revolution, and makes a good stab at being more human, even if the political underpinnings of the previous play were far more organic than they ever are here. (Though Kudos to Herzog for working in an all-consuming explanation of Leo's behavior and worldview by citing Evergreen State College, something only Washington State natives are likely to completely understand.) But overall, this is a play that's confused by the dead-end opportunities it keeps presenting itself, and like Leo is unwilling to accept that sometimes exploring an excess of new avenues can be less compelling than making the most of wherever you happen to be.

4000 Miles
Through July 7
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Duke On 42nd Street

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