Theater Review: “4000 Miles” and Nothing Gained

“4000 Miles,” playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, until Nov. 11. Post-show discussion with playwright Amy Herzog on Nov. 8.

“4000 Miles” by Amy Herzog, directed by Mary Robinson and playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre until November 11, is the theater version of easy-listening music.  

While the performances by Beth Dixon (Vera) and Davy Raphaely (Leo) were outstanding, and the two-hour play goes by fast, it is not a conceptually or intellectually compelling evening at the theater. In both plot and dialogue, it is a traditional drama that does not take any risks, but delivers a familiar family story that is predictable, if heartwarming and poignant all the same.  

Playwright Herzog tells the story of Leo, a young man in his 20s who arrives in his Grandmother Vera’s New York City apartment one night at 3 a.m., after biking cross-country. Both characters are confronting death: Leo is silently grieving his best friend’s death, and Vera, the last of a group of progressive octogenarians, finds herself confronting death regularly.    

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Herzog tells a familiar story, that could have been more interesting had Herzog rooted the communist Vera in a historical, ethnic, or religious history. The play is based on Herzog’s family, with Vera “based quite directly on my real biological grandmother, who is 95 and lives still in Greenwich Village.”  

In the play, Herzog de-racinates Vera, so she could be either a New England Wasp lefty or a Jewish New Yorker one. This failure to root her in a clearer ethnic background limits the play’s impact, but widens its appeal. The play, like a television sitcom, becomes a generic portrayal of a family that, in its lack of specificity, merely appeals and entertains on a sentimental level.  

I could not help agreeing with Herzog’s real-life grandma, Leepee, who after seeing “After the Revolution,” another of Herzog’s plays, said, “Well, Amy is very creative, but ultimately she’s a conservative.” While I take “conservative” here as politically conservative, I would add aesthetically conservative as well, as the play does not push any creative boundaries.

Beth Dixon and Davy Raphaeli.

Leo, a self-described hippy, who eschews college for cross-country biking, wall climbing, tending a community garden and living off his parents and grandmother, is a New Age idealist, whose certainty and cockiness belay his own emotional confusions and his vulnerability.  

In a scene where he brings a young Chinese Parsons student (Amanda, played by Leigha Kato) back to his grandmother’s apartment to seduce her, the art student is alarmed by his grandmother’s communism.  

“Are you a communist?” she asks him, stating that her parents escaped Communist oppression and that she doesn’t think she could get romantic in a “communist” apartment, Leo reassures her that “communism is like recycling:” It was the progressive way to be when his grandmother was young. In other words, communism in Herzog’s play is a consumer fashion, that might show up on Portlandia anytime soon.  

Other than the Chinese character, who is a caricature of young artistic energy and clichéd dialogue, the characters are devoid of history, as is the communism in the play itself. The play depoliticizes communism, which becomes a vague signifier about resistance, or irreverence or other-ness, mildly tinged with danger and bravado.  

Although vague reference is made to a book that Vera’s second husband edited about Cuba, communism is presented as passé; indeed, even Vera’s neighbor, who shares her lefty political beliefs, is repeatedly dismissed as a “pain in the ass.”  

The personal is not political in Herzog’s play — it supercedes the political. It does not disrupt the nuclear family’s sentimental conflicts — it is like the beautiful setting and lighting (by Thom Weaver) of the play: Pleasant to look at, and go home and forget.

But politics, other than as a vague reference, is not what Herzog is exploring. It is the realm of human emotions and familial ties that bind and unravel. One of the more compelling sub-plots is a reference to an incestuous relationship between Leo and his adopted Chinese sister.

But this is left unexplored in the play, which ventures into a potentially interesting territory: that of sexuality, commitment, aging and desire, remaining superficial in its treatment.  

Obie Award-winning, and Pulitzer-nominated, “4000 Miles” remains a non-challenging, but highly entertaining bit of theater. It will offend neither tea party-ers, nor communists, nor anything in between — which, depending on your politics and aesthetics, might be either comic or tragic.      


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