I wish I could say that Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles works as a character study. It offers four interesting enough types, after all: a hippie bicyclist with a hands-off attitude toward gainful employment, his fading grandmother who’s still game enough to experiment with marijuana, his off-and-on girlfriend with doubts about his romantic viability and a one-night stand with a long-standing grudge against Chinese communism. Certainly a play which takes us deeper and deeper into these personages can hold our attention, and if it lacks a plot, so what? The human psyche is capacious, and in a hundred minutes we should get so far into these four minds as to make our experience more than satisfying. And the key relationship — between grandson and grandmother — is one we haven’t seen much of before, so it’s rich with possibilities. This thing’s gotta be fascinating. Yes?
American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg. $39-$49. Through April 10. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun, 3 p.m. 727-823-PLAY.
No: 4000 Miles is a charming bore. Author Herzog may excel at writing lovely dialogue, but about a half hour into the play, we begin to suspect that she has nothing to tell us, and by the final scene we’re entirely sure. Which is not to say that there aren’t moments in the play that are entertaining, funny, unexpected, or even wise. It’s just that these moments come erratically and finally add up to nothing. This problem is all the more regrettable because the current American Stage production is tiptop in every way, from acting to directing to costume and set design. In other words, this play looks and sounds so much like a winner, it takes extra moments to understand that there’s not much there.
The premise is promising: 21-year-old Leo Joseph-Cornell (Casey Worthington) shows up at the Greenwich Village apartment of his 91-year-old grandmother Vera (Janis Stevens) after a cross-country bicycle trip that included a disaster (about which we hear only later in the drama). Leo and Vera don’t know each other well, but we learn that there has been some trouble back home that contributes to Leo’s desire to spend extra time with the elderly woman. Leo has two young female visitors while he’s at Grandma’s: Bec (Dani Faitelson), an old lover who wants to break up, and Amanda (Maya Handa Naff), a newcomer who wants to bed down. And that’s it: For 100 minutes we learn interesting but not enlightening details of Leo and Vera’s lives, watch one embarrassing make-out scene between Leo and Amanda, and hear the truth about the bike trip. Beyond that, it’s just the usual assurances that Everyone is Beautiful (in their own way), that Nobody’s a Stereotype (not even your grandma). The suggestion that Leo has significantly changed by the end feels perfunctory and is in any case unconvincing. As for the reason we’ve sat through this plot in particular — well, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.
Still, there’s consolation in the acting. Stevens’s Vera is an all-too-persuasive, falling-apart elderly woman, tied to her hearing aids, her false teeth and her walker. As grandson Leo, Worthington is more physical than mental (one of his quests is for a gym where he can practice climbing), self-conscious but not self-aware, awkward and convinced that the best way to handle a problem is to bike away from it. My favorite performance, though, was Naff’s as potential hookup Amanda. Naff’s Amanda is amusingly drunk, coy, aggressive then defensive, delighted that she’s found herself with a “mountain man” and quick to tell him not to worry, she’s all in favor of their having sex.
Compared to the other three characters, Amanda is a dynamo: unpredictable, opinionated, deep but playing shallow, teasing but in charge. As the more workaday Bec, Faitelson is sensible, cautious, well-intentioned and anxious to choose right. Director Benjamin T. Ismail allows each of these characters to enjoy the spotlight awhile, though he makes it clear enough that Vera is at the play’s center. Steve Mitchell’s set of Vera’s handsome New York apartment is attractive enough to live in (but how does she reach those mile-high bookshelves?). Catherine Cann’s first-rate costumes range from Leo’s biking gear to Vera’s too-revealing funeral blouse (a bit of clothing that gets a good laugh). This is one of the best-looking productions I’ve seen at American Stage.
And yet... Aside from the inevitable nods to everyone’s dignity (in which the audience and I already believe), there’s little here to justify our almost two hours’ investment. If only 4000 Miles offered one original insight, one potently dramatized idea! No such luck: Under the attractive surface of this play, there’s a void and it eventually shows itself. What a pity! Characters this fresh deserve a better play.
So do audiences.