It’s always a pleasure to watch Mary Louise Wilson hobble her way through her scrapbook of old crones, but the hobbling she does in 4000 Miles, an earthbound play by Amy Herzog at Lincoln Center’s compact Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is hardly worth the effort. This play of small fragmented scenes, about a slacker who lands on his grandmother’s doorstep and becomes a reluctant roommate, is so benign that it refuses to drag a single foot of its own. It’s mercifully brief, but 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission is a bit long for anyone with a small bladder.
It’s 3 a.m. and a dirty, disheveled child-man named Leo rings the doorbell of his grandmother’s apartment in Greenwich Village after bicycling 4,000 miles from Seattle to New York. He’s been on the road so long that his mother has been worried sick back home in the Pacific Northwest, but he doesn’t care. In fact, he turns irritable and confrontational for reasons that are never clear every time her name is mentioned. Tall, skinny and living out of a knapsack, Leo is an awkward, unsightly mess, with a graceless personality to match. (Or maybe it’s just Gabriel Ebert, the actor, who plays the role with the energy of a dead muskrat.) Grandmother Vera takes him in anyway. Nothing changes much over the course of the weightless relationship that follows, written in a neo-realistic style and played with naturalism by people of two different generations. Eventually, her values rub off (do things for other people, be part of the community of man, assume some responsibility) and his anxieties surface in a buffet of tics, mannerisms and stony stares. I spent a great deal of time looking at my watch.
As the non-play drones on, we learn a few things about Vera’s two marriages as she shares insights into the women her first husband slept with. He was a cheater and a drunk, but she was nurturing and tolerant, just as she is now with Leo. He talks about harpooning fish on a boat with his best friend and traveling companion Mica, who has died on the cross-country biking trip. He’s in the doldrums about that, but not so depressed that he bothered to show up at Mica’s funeral. An old girlfriend named Bec (Zoe Winters) shows up and reminds Leo that he’s an aimless, unfocused and totally boorish person, but we know that already. One night, he brings home a loopy tramp named Amanda (Greta Lee), and they wake up his grandmother in the noisy lust of unconsummated sex. The intruder puts her clothes back on and slinks away. Leo should slink away too, but he doesn’t know where to go. So he and his grandmother smoke a little dope together to “celebrate the autumnal equinox.” He talks about camera lenses, shutter speeds and shadow shots. She does the laundry. Mostly, they waft through a thoroughly numbing play saying little inconsequential things to each other, but the things they say don’t add up to a bigger picture until he opens up and talks about how his best friend died. It seems—are you ready?—he was killed on the highway by a Tyson poultry truck. I mean, are they kidding, or what? Mary Louise Wilson endures this banal monologue, sitting in the dark so you can’t even see her facial expressions. Finally, she speaks. “I’m not wearing my hearing aid, so I only heard parts of what you said,” she confesses—“but I didn’t want to interrupt.” This is one of the problems. She doesn’t interrupt. She doesn’t even throw him out of the house. What a plethora of missed opportunities. Grandma Vera, an aging peace activist and card-carrying Communist, is a role that might allow Ms. Wilson to inject some desperately needed moxie into 4000 Miles, but the playwright never gives her a chance.
The flaccid experience of watching the wasted talent of a charming actress who won a Tony as Big Edie in the unforgettable Grey Gardens and dazzled as Diana Vreeland in her one-woman show Full Gallop is vexing. The writing is too self-contained to stir up any heat and too ponderous and lumbering to hold much interest. In the end, Leo’s bags are packed and he’s ready to shove off at last, but instead of moving toward the door, he and his grandma both sit silently, staring into space. 4000 Miles has no impetus. It’s like watching television.