Are families onstage ever believable? Not very often, in my experience. Usually, their tribulations degenerate into either sitcom or soap opera: juiced up with gag lines, or else trumped up with plot contrivances, to make a more entertaining evening for theatergoers who want to escape their own lives, not see them reflected onstage.
I expected either, or both, from Amy Herzog’s new off-Broadway play 4000 Miles (now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater). The premise does not bode well. A college-age neo-hippie, at the end of a cross-country bicycle trip, drops in unannounced on his grandmother, who lives alone in a New York City apartment, and decides to stay with her for a while. It’s the perfect set-up for an intergenerational Odd Couple — with laughs aplenty, and space for a few tears too, as young and old form a bond across the years.
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To be sure, 4000 Miles has a few laughs in it, but the surprise is how few. The clash between Leo (Gabriel Ebert) and 91-year-old Vera (Mary Louise Wilson) prompts amusing conflicts over everything from food to girlfriends, but director David Aukin and a flawless cast never push it. Wilson, in particular, plays Vera with amazing restraint, warmth and integrity. She shuffles around her apartment, gropes for words she can’t remember, laments her frailties with clear-eyed resignation. “Some days I’m myself, and some days my head isn’t right,” she says, more in wonderment than self-pity. I’ve rarely seen a truer, more dignified picture of old age on the stage.
Vera is an old leftie (she’s also a character in an earlier Herzog play, After the Revolution), and there’s a link between her and the laid-back, eco-friendly Leo. But the politics is downplayed, merely background noise for the family drama at the play’s core. That involves Leo, and the reasons behind his surprise visit. He hasn’t spoken to his parents for weeks. Something has happened between him and his adopted sister. The bike trip has had a traumatic interruption.
Herzog unravels the details slowly, with uncommon narrative skill, in short scenes that stretch over weeks. Nothing is hyped with melodrama — or even, in some cases, entirely explained. Indeed, the play is partly about the difficulty of communicating, of making connections, both inside and outside the family bond. Vera has an unseen next-door neighbor, who communicates only by phone, checking in each day to make sure Vera hasn’t keeled over. When Leo finally pours out some of his secrets in a long monologue near the end, Vera listens, hidden in shadows. When he’s finished, she tells him her hearing aid wasn’t turned on, so she missed a lot of it. Miraculously, it’s not played for laughs.
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I’ve made 4000 Miles sound like a two-character play, but it’s not. Just enough of the outside world creeps in to keep things grounded in a broader reality. Leo’s girlfriend, whom Vera thinks is overweight (Zoe Winters plays her wonderfully — alert, wired and, yes, a bit chunky), comes over to berate him for not calling and to announce that she wants to break up. Later he brings home another girl (Greta Lee) from a bar, for some pick-up sex that is, predictably, interrupted by Grandma. But even this old cliché plays like something fresh.
Everything about 4000 Miles seems fresh, particularized, plausible. Compared to it, a family like the one in Broadway’s critically acclaimed Other Desert Cities — in which two waspy Republican parents go into a snit when their daughter writes a tell-all memoir — seem like cardboard contrivances. That play is a frontrunner for the Tony Award. But 4000 Miles is the family drama that really sticks with you, easily the best play of the season.
Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America