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Theater Review: “4,000 Miles” at Studio Theatre

Joy Zinoman helms a sweet but sharply funny production of Amy Herzog’s Obie Award-winning play.

Grant Harrison and Tana Hicken in 4,000 Miles. Photograph by Scott Suchman

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

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.