'4000 Miles' - A Theatre Review
'Still A Few More Miles To Go'
The Pulitzer Prize Finalist '4000 Miles' is a play by Amy Herzog. Directed by Chris Bremer (who is also the Managing Director of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre) and featuring Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg, Joseph Seibert, Lydia Hiller and Arianne Villareal, the show ran Off-Broadway in 2011.
In short, '4000 Miles' weaves together a myriad of everyday human emotions. Those we struggle to keep buried within us for the loss of a friend, the love we have for another, the pain of unrequited love, our special bond with older family members, and even the age old Where do I fit in? feeling of isolation.
As the play opens, Leo Joseph-Connell (Joseph Seibert) enters into his grandmothers old flat in Manhattan - bike first! Admittedly, as he and the old lady he has just awoken make their first round of introductions there's an immediately drawn out minute or so of silence where she goes to put her teeth in. Unnecessarily so, to my mind it makes for a stuttered opening to Act One.
But as Leo begins to talk with his grandmother Vera (Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg), through the ensuing days they find themselves bonding again. Being that Leo hadn't even attended the funeral of her husband Joe, it had been quite a while so not every conversation goes smoothly between them.
Given that Vera needs a hearing aid, has trouble getting up and down from the sofa, and makes coffee like she's trying to tar a road, Leo finds himself shouting a lot to get his point across. She obviously tells him, for the most part, that she can hear perfectly well, but Seibert's perpetual acting flaw is that he keeps his voice half-raised during any conversation he's having on stage.
With the audience just feet away, the stage compact, there really is no need for Seibert to keep his monotone voice bubbling there in such a semi-heightened manner. It's as if he's ready for an argument with any one at any given time. He also jumps too fast sometimes at his lines. It seems trying to remember to get them out correctly, without allowing his thoughts and responses to seep out normally, has the upper hand within him.
As we progress through the first two-thirds of Act One with only Leo and Vera to keep us enthralled, it does become rather a long stretch to endure. So the introduction of Bec (Lydia Hiller) towards the end of Act One is a breath of much-needed visual fresh air.
Up until that point Leo and Vera had reminisced, had embraced each other for all their faults, and had ensured a politically-charged subplot was put into place. So when his girlfriend arrives it's like color was shone onto the grey of what had gone before.
But Bec doesn't have good news for Leo as she wants to break up with him. Which is a complete shock for him as he had left to go on this long bike ride (from West to East, hence the title of the play) with his best friend Micah assuming he would just come right back into her arms. But here, now in Vera's apartment Bec's has other ideas.
Hiller as Bec plays the grown-cold girlfriend to a tee, but her constantly stoic facial expression grates a little come the end of Act One. Her lips pursed, her eyes beady, she looks like she's got a sour candy under her tongue. Maybe that's the way she wanted to play her character. If so, Bravo!
After the 15 minute intermission we open on a new day and find both Vera and Leo "high" (literally) on the sofa watching TV! Not too sure where that inspiration came from as it's not anything myself or my date ever considered doing with the Matriarch of our families! But it does make for a very funny ten minute mini-sketch!
That said, and in what turns out to be a running theme here, vulgar profanity seems to be heavily on tap, sadly. I mean, the odd f-word and such is acceptable here and there, but this play is constantly littered with a barrage of f-bombs ... and worse! During that aforementioned sofa scene Leo discusses Bec's p*ssy with his grandmother. Much to the shocked drawn breath that accompanied the word once uttered in the seats all around me.
And just as the play is starting to fall back on it's two central characters - that have, by this juncture probably said all they needed to say to each other - we are presented with the hyper-bubbly, and yet totally-believable character of Amanda (Arianne Villareal).
Someone that Leo picked up at the local bar, she is Asian (like his adopted sister, who it's revealed he had a kiss with once that supposedly sent her to therapy!), loves wearing brightly-colored clothing atop her mini, oh-so-mini skirt, and favors some of the most incredibly inventive female footwear I have ever set my eyes on!
Running her mouth at 100 miles per hour, she totally takes command of the play. And so for the next 20 minutes it's the Amanda Show! This portion of the act might only be primarily between her and Leo, but man does she grab it by the scruff of the neck and run with it for all it's worth!
That is until, of course, the political sub plot weakly (it has to be said) kicks in and minutes later she is out the door and gone for good. Indeed, her leaving brings us back to our main two characters, which means that the latter portion of Act Two begins to come full circle.
As Vera, Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg plays her straight down the line. There's no fuss, there's no awkward deviations from her character's elderly portrayal within the play. A founder of the JET, and having appeared in over 100 plays herself, she may not be of the age she portrays, but she sure brings it home with flying colors.
But it's Leo's unexpected speech late one night to his deaf grandmother that proves to be the true highlight of the play. Gently lit under a faux orange glow, the set darkened around him, he sits on the edge of the sofa facing us, his face haunted, his words both stuttered and fragile.
Leo then tells us how Micah had died on their biking trip. In such great detail and with some empathy, that once he gets to the part where he describes Mika's actual dying moments an awkward hush is quickly followed by a gentle release of breath by the audience. Leo's speech (ergo, Seibert's delivery) was just that good.
In closing know that as much as everyone will connect with many, many things that unfold here within the well-written script from Herzog, not everything will hit its intended realistic mark. Timing can be off, words can be forgotten, the sound effects are horribly cheesy, and it seems the bike will fall over whenever it chooses to!
But come the end, and as much as we may not want to admit it walking out, upon reflection you'll know that '4000 Miles' is a play that mirrors moments of your own life to perfection.
And so for that alone I wholly recommend '4000 Miles' and hope you can all find your way to the Jewish Ensemble Theatre to watch it before it closes on December 1st, 2013.
Reviewed by: Russell A. Trunk