Old age and new age collide in 4,000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s gentle, Obie Award-winning play currently at Studio Theatre about a young man soothed by a sojourn with his grandmother in Manhattan. Leo (Grant Harrison) is a free-spirited twentysomething who’s ridden his bike cross-country on a loosely defined mission; Vera (Tana Hicken) is the nonagenarian relative who takes him in and acts as an analgesic to his uneasy soul.
It’s the kind of plot format that could feel Hallmark-trite, but Herzog’s granny comes with a twist—she’s a Marxist who keeps copies of Mao biographies and the Kama Sutra on her bookshelf right next to a rotary phone and the Yellow Pages, and her attitude to life is as open-minded as Leo’s is. “I’m glad to see you carry those, but I’m surprised they’re not opened,” she tells him casually as he retrieves the Trojans he left inside his rucksack along with his laundry. She also has the practicality that accompanies age. “I have a tent, and a camping stove, and a love for the outdoors,” Leo says blithely after arriving at her door at 3 AM and debating where he’s going to crash. “I’ll be all right.” “It’s Manhattan,” Vera replies, exasperated.
This production marks the directorial return of Joy Zinoman, Studio’s founding artistic director who handed the institutional reins to David Muse in 2010, and it’s easy to sense what might have appealed to her about this particular play. Vera, based loosely on Herzog’s real-life grandmother, is a vibrant force who’s not all that grandmotherly. Equipped with a sharp tongue and a low tolerance for BS, she nevertheless comforts Leo by gaining his trust. The plot of the play is fairly spindly, but the joy for the audience is in seeing the characters interact, and recognizing their familiarity (costume designer Helen Huang, for example, manages to give Leo a remarkably diverse wardrobe out of a number of clothing items you could count on one hand).
Herzog has a wry wit and a skillful hand with dialogue. Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Bec (Heather Haney), dismissed as “plump” by Vera, shows up with cycling gear and an affectation of speech where everything goes up at the end. “I don’t make these kinds of allowances based on gender?” she tells Vera, sounding for all the world like a more erudite Girls cast member. And yet minutes later she’s deriding the undergraduates she attends college with who “end every sentence with a question mark.”
As Leo, Harrison dominates Russell Metheny’s detail-perfect set with his long frame and booming voice, embodying the arrogance of youth whether he’s sitting smack in the middle of the couch or helping himself to his grandmother’s Campari. But Harrison also manages to communicate the sincerity under the smugness. Herzog’s scenes are short and punchy, and in one, Dan Wagner’s lights emit a shadowy glow over the living room as Leo and Vera sit on the couch, alternating hits off a pipe to celebrate the “autumnal equinox.” Vera, the more stoned of the two, recalls the only man who ever did anything for her in bed (shocker: it wasn’t her husband), while Leo listens, acknowledging his grandmother as a person and an equal.
Hicken is deft as Vera, communicating the fragile physicality of a woman more than 20 years older than she is—her hands shake while grasping the coffeepot, and she grimaces as she rises with difficulty from the couch. But she also perfectly inhabits the character’s contradictions, from the gentle joy she gets from an embrace with Leo to the wickedly funny barbs she shrugs off casually. Haney commands attention as Bec, an example of the strong women Leo’s obviously drawn to, while Annie Chang offers a more nuanced performance than could be expected in her role as a Chinese-American princess in pink sequins who describes herself as “slutty” but unexpectedly freaks out at the mention of Vera’s communist roots.
The emotional crux of the play, in which Leo reveals how he ended up at his grandmother’s door, lacks the gut punch it might have, partly because Herzog makes it incongruously humorous, and partly because the scene is realistic to its core. But the emotional journey of his character throughout the few weeks he spends at Vera’s is heartening, as is the reminder that age doesn’t force people into boxes. Herzog’s diverse, dynamic characters, expertly rendered, make 4,000 Miles go by in a flash.
4000 Miles is at Studio Theatre through April 28. Running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($59) are available via Studio’s website.