4000 Miles Review - Stage Noise with Diana Simmonds
May 10, 2013
Amy Herzog's award-winning and Pulitzer Prize finalist was an instant success in New York at the not-for-profit Lincoln Center, and went on to a new theatre - with similar success - in 2012. This year it's been produced, to good reviews, in the UK at Bath's Theatre Royal and now it's been snapped up by a trio of small companies and given a wonderful production at ATYP's studio theatre. Well done, them.
The story is simple enough and therefore deceptive. Leo is 21, he arrives at his 91-year-old grandmother Vera's New York apartment - unannounced - in the early hours of the morning. He has cycled from Seattle on a quest to find himself and get away from his overbearing mother, in equal measure. Vera's main concern in the opening moments is that he hasn't showered for days and stinks. That aside, she is blissfully non-judgemental and when she finally slips in her dentures, she is also able to make herself understood by her wary, emotionally overwrought grandson.
It turns out there are two reasons for Leo's unhappiness: somewhere in the middle of America his best friend and cycling companion was killed on the road and now, having finally arrived in New York he discovers that his girlfriend Bec isn't pleased to see him. And that's how he comes to be banging on Vera's door at 3am although, he tells her defiantly, if she doesn't want him, he can easily go pitch his tent somewhere. Vera says not to be crazy, it's Manhattan - just go take a shower.
Over the course of an hour and 40 minutes these unlikely people establish lives, both past and present, and a relationship that crackles and snaps with true love and antagonism. Leo starts off bratty and unlovesome, but he knows instinctively that he has more in common with his irascible grandmother than anyone else; that unlike his mother, his politics will neither surprise nor anger her. He gradually discovers that she is not only a tolerant if grouchy woman but also a real Leftie from way back, widow of a noted Marxist intellectual. As he begins to read his books, Leo's grandfather is suddenly more than a cosy memory.
4000 Miles is a leisurely series of story threads whose whimsy and sly humour rein in any slide towards the sentimentality that could so easily overwhelm such characters in lesser hands. And Herzog is good at this kind of thing: any tendency to the mawkish or cliched response from her audience is sharply pricked. For instance, the death of Leo's best friend is initially described in tender and tragic detail to the moment when he is killed - by an overladen poultry transporter under which he is suffocated. And suddenly it's grimly comical: gallows humour on a Mid-West highway.
The direction and playing of it is crucial to the balance of humour and humanity in the play. Anthony Skuse (Sydney Theatre Award winner for The Libertine) has assembled a gem-like cast and directs with intelligence and finesse. In the lead is Vera, creaky of hip and hard of hearing. She could so easily be a figure of fun or pity - a caricature - but Diana McLean is simply magnificent. The nuance of voice, physicality and response to the vagaries of the script are subtle, touching and hilarious. She's a joy to watch.
As Leo, Stephen Multari gives an equally sensitive performance, initially defiant and almost childish, he becomes a decent and idealistic young man in the course of two or three months and the evening. Between them McLean and Multari form one of the most unexpectedly delightful and moving pairings to be seen on a Sydney stage this or any other year - particularly when they sit and watch the sunset while getting stoned.
In support - cameo roles, really - Eloise Snape is excellent as Bec, the on again, off again girlfriend who no longer wants to be on; while Aileen Huynh's one scene as Leo's failed attempt at a one-night stand is a masterclass in "drunk acting".
In a world of determinedly big ideas and awesome occurrences, nothing much goes on in 4000 Miles, except that compassion, love and humour are seen to be the most important things that can happen to anyone. No wonder people love it. And this production is just wonderful. Go and see it, please!