4000 Miles

It’s turning out to be good year for American playwrights in British theatre. No sooner has the curtain come down on the Royal Court Theatre‘s production of Bruce Norris’s The Low Road, then Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Disgraced is set to open at the Bush. Then, we have David Mamet’s Race at the Hampstead and a new play by Daniel Henry Hwang soon to debut at the Park theatre. While differing largely in both form and content, they nonetheless each share a willing ambition to address some rather meaty subject matter: the roots of modern capitalism, culture and religion in the twentieth century and well, race, respectively.

By comparison, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is a curiously subdued affair; a mournful chamber piece occasionally buoyed by flashes of humour. It’s a play peopled with characters attempting to recall the past, but it often lapses into sentimentality. The problem with 4000 Miles is that the issues it sets out to explore are addressed too diffusely. Herzog’s writing demonstrates a tenderness and humanity, but she fails to sustain a dialogue with the wider conflicts she sets out early on in the play.

Set in the very recent past, the story begins when 21-year-old Leo (Daniel Boyd) arrives unannounced in the dead of night on his grandmother’s doorstep. Vera (Sara Kestleman) is 91, a dyed-in-the-wool communist and has lived alone in her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment ever since the death of her husband, Jo. Leo is an insouciant pot-smoking hippy returned from a cross-country bike ride gone horribly awry. Over the course of one month, Leo and Vera reminisce and bicker like an old married couple; both feel adrift and unable to pin down their own sense of purpose. They chatter about the past, family, politics and sex, until Leo’s estranged girlfriend Bec (Jenny Hulse) shows up, prompting more conversations about the past, family, politics and sex… etc. 4000 Miles is a play preoccupied with looking back, the clash of generations that is exemplified through Leo and Vera’s relationship should be grounds for great drama, but it’s dissipated by the play’s lack of forward momentum. By the end of the play, I was left wondering whether the vague sense of loss that plagues Leo and Vera had somewhere spilled over into the fabric of the play itself.

The acting is strong overall, but particularly praise must go to Kestelman as Vera Joseph; a volatile concoction of compassion and cynicism, she communicates Vera’s frailty with remarkable sensitivity. Boyd is understated as the listless Leo, his naïve, boyish charm serving as a suitable foil for Vera’s world-weary wisdom.

Despite the play’s shortcomings, James Dacre’s staging is thoughtful and considered; Simon Kenny’s design is a pleasure to behold – Vera’s apartment has been meticulously researched and communicates a whole interior life through a sophisticated attention to detail. The Print Room’s intimate, end-on staging is perfectly suited to the domestic interiority of the play, having made a very clean transition from the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio.

4,000 Miles is playing at the Print Room until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Print Room website. Photography by Jane Hobson.