(Costa Mesa, CA) October, 2013 – Hype is a very interesting word. If a person is “hyped,” it could mean that person is stimulated about an event that has occurred, or if the event is about to occur, then that person is “hyped” at the anticipation of the event. But “hype” has another meaning: to build a subject up, exaggerating its importance. When it was announced that 4000 Miles—a Pulitzer Prize finalist, an Obie Award winner for Best New American Play, and was named “#1 Play of 2012” by TIME magazine—would be produced at South Coast Repertory during its Golden Anniversary season, there was much anticipation of an original work that contains three dimensional characters and thought-provoking dialogue. Maybe to those on the east coast who gave this play the awards, as well as perhaps many on the west coast, the play lives up to its hype. But sadly, despite the expert direction of David Emmes and his cast, 4000 Miles is one of those plays whose potential of exploring a cross-generational relationship between a grandmother and her grandson is filled with trite political diatribe and shallow sentimentality. Playwright Amy Herzog’s latest work suffers from flat, stilted dialogue, unlikable characters, and a completely unsatisfactory ending.
In Greenwich Village, 91-year-old Vera (Jenny O’Hara) is woken up in the middle of the night by her wayward grandson Leo (Matt Caplan), who has biked cross-country from Seattle to New York for a fun, soul-searching summer journey. This is a total surprise to the solitary woman; Leo has been incommunicado for the past few months after a mysterious tragedy that occurred during the trip, a tragedy that has resulted in Leo’s best friend—who accompanied him on the bike journey—being killed by a freak accident. Since then, the free-spirited Leo has alienated his immediate family, has been dumped by his girlfriend, Bec (a tortured Rebecca Mozo), and is burdened by demons of his past—the ones before the death of his friend— which is now driving him to the edge of an emotional cliff. But Vera sees a lot of potential in Leo and therefore lets him stay in her tiny apartment to physically and emotionally recover. As an old Leftist and card-carrying communist, Vera recognizes a kindred spirit in Leo’s hippie-like manner. But his free spirit behavior is laced with a disturbing layer of selfishness that even she, a Marxist, finds disturbing.
The very foundation of 4000 Miles is the relationship and chemistry between the two leads, and it is that very chemistry that is terribly lacking, both on the stage and especially in the writing. Herzog has created Vera as a old communist who occasionally lapses into forgetfulness. The playwright has also created Leo as a wounded soul searching for healing. But there is nowhere for these two characters to go throughout the story: Vera is simply cranky, forgetful and whimsical about the old left-wing gang she hung out with in the past, and Leo’s self-hatred is strictly one note and self-destructive. No matter how hard the artists try, neither of these characters change. Herzog fails in trying to reveal anything dynamic going on within these two characters. And this 1 hour and 45 minute play, which has no intermission, drags with a lot of screaming, pleading, whining and those long uneventful silences where the two lead characters mope about the mystery of the tragedy. This is a very amateurish style that Herzog surprisingly uses. The one saving grace of this is David Emmes tight direction of trying to prevent the duration to drag even more. But it is a hard task to accomplish and Emmes, a masterful director, tries his best.
However, the one common denominator that binds Vera and Leo is there mutual left-wing ideologies. From what can be seen on stage and in the writing, Vera is a true saddened soul because all her comrades are dead, and since she’s estranged from her daughter—Leo’s mother, Vera’s political path has left her quite isolated. Leo, who is cut from the same political cloth as Vera, has taken this free spirit and “community” ideology to the extreme, so much so he acts on it by 1) French-kissing his adopted sister (But it’s okay, according to Leo. After all, she is adopted and they were on a drug trip during the experience.), 2) using the death of his friend in order to bed an Asian college undergrad (a hilarious Klarissa Mesee, who gives the funniest and perhaps the most profound line in the entire play: “I, hate, Communists. Why? Duh! I’m Chinese! Why do you think my family left?”), and 3) sharing his whimsical thoughts on Bec’s unusual private parts to his grandmother, which is so graphic that even Vera cringes in awkwardness.
If Herzog is trying to show how extreme left-wing ideologies make people unhappy, and Vera and Leo are indeed unhappy, then she fails to show specifically show why that happens. She does try during a scene where Vera shares with Bec stories about her deceased first husband’s infidelities. But then Herzog takes the cheap way out by having Vera end the monologues with an accepting sigh and say that men can be very stupid at times. This is not revealing layers of a character; this is a sophomoric attempt of just ending the scene with a laugh. However, if Herzog is trying to show the positive facets of this ideology, then she needs to include more than have the characters say throw-away lines about how "cool" Karl Marx and the Cuban health care system are; even the theatre playbill had more specific, albeit very questionable, information about left-wing ideologies than the play itself. That is not dialogue that people say; those are slogans. Whether a writer follows a left-wing or right-wing ideology, they must follow the #1 rule: to educate and entertain. And that is something Herzog fails to do. Even at the very end of the play, Herzog’s dialogue just stops in the middle of a thought, and then the stage cuts to black with no sense of timing; the audience didn’t even know the play ended until the curtain call stage lights went up and the cast came out.
The other saving grace to this production besides Emmes’s direction is O’Hara’s Vera. This talented actress has graced the screen—silver and television—and the theatrical stage for decades with her chameleon-like abilities, and her portrayal of this 91-year-old hermit is a wonder to behold, with her stooped back, long, wintery white hair, and the New York accent. She captures the wise nature of Vera, but she also intertwines the loneliness and the slight hints of regret that her life’s path has taken her. Caplan’s Leo is the weakest performance in the entire cast. He tries to mix his intensity with guilt, but the only thing he succeeds is making Leo more prideful, selfish, and arrogant than what is illustrated in the text, and that is an accomplishment within itself. The problem is his emotional journey maintains that selfishness throughout the play, to the point where he appears many times as a whiny, out-of control version of Dustin Diamond’s Screech from Saved by the Bell. Even during his one poignant moment where he confesses to Vera what happened to his best friend during his trip (an extremely weak explanation Herzog creates), that moment was marred by the unusually poor and dark lighting design of Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz where you couldn’t even see their facial expressions, thereby robbing Caplan any chance of showing any signs of Leo’s diminishing humanity.
After the brilliant productions of Fast Company and especially the season opener of Death of a Salesman, South Coast Repertory shouldn’t be hampered too much by this amateurish play. Hopefully, the rest of this Golden Anniversary will shine as the season progresses.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
4000 Miles opened October 18-November 17, 2013
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson