After a tragically eventful cross-continent bike ride that began in Seattle, 21-year-old Leo arrives at the New York apartment of his grandmother, Vera, at 3 am. It's a somewhat startling entrance, but like most things that life deals her, 91-year-old Vera takes this in her stride.
Thus begins "4000 Miles," the West Coast premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater of a play that gained great acclaim when it opened at New York's Lincoln Center last year.
Written by Amy Herzog, who recently won the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for another work (After the Revolution), "4000 Miles" explores Leo's and Vera's evolving relationship. Along the way, it touches upon love, sex, grief, betrayal and the very different but equally challenging confusions that come with young adulthood and old age.
Like Leo's eponymous cross-country journey, "4000 Miles" provides plenty of revelations. Unfortunately, while there are some affecting moments, the play's overall impact is transitory. This is a drama easily shrugged off once you've left the theater's door.
One reason for this is that the focus is on the less interesting of the two primary characters. Leo is a mash-up of young adult problems. He's got a relationship on the rocks, a mother he can't bring himself to speak to, a lost best friend and no apparent direction. What's more, after a drug-addled night, he managed to mess up his relationship with his younger sister, whom he adores.
In the midst of this, and despite a nicely nuanced performance by Reggie Gowland, these piled-on problems turn Leo into something of a twenty-something-stereotype; he never feels quite real.
On the other hand, Vera (played by the wonderful Susan Blommaert), is a fully realized character. This is likely in large part because, as Herzog freely admits, Vera is based on her own grandmother, with whom she stayed for a very challenging six months when she was trying to make it as an actress in New York.
A Communist in her younger years, Vera is deliciously outspoken, opinionated and cantankerous. She's put out by Reggie's lax housekeeping and his strange priorities (when he asks to borrow $50 to go to a climbing gym she wonders why anyone would spend that much to merely "climb up a wall").
She's frustrated with her fading memory and dissipating vocabulary. She dislikes her across-the-hall neighbor, who never visits, but faithfully calls her to make sure she's still alive.
Among the play's most interesting moments are those when the limits of Vera's latter-day radicalism are revealed: she sees nothing wrong with calling Leo's girlfriend, Bec (played with conviction by Julia Lawler) "chubby," suggests that tolerance for male infidelity is simply a practical approach to the inevitable, and, after sharing a little lip-loosening marijuana with Leo, confesses that sex with his grandfather was less than satisfying.
The action takes place in Vera's apartment, with the set designed by Erik Flatmo nicely evoking Vera's life through the lived-in décor, smatterings of pictures and personal items, and the overfilled bookshelves along the wall. And at just over an hour and a half, the pace is nimble, with the tight snippets of scenes played out over the course of several months.
In one of the play's more hilarious and poignant scenes, Leo brings home Amanda (the dazzling Camille Mana). When the evening's promise descends deftly from the euphoria of a potential night of passion to a clumsily aborted one-night stand both character's vulnerabilities are sharply revealed.
Equally poignant is the moment when Leo reveals the disturbance at the heart of his current inertia to his grandmother, though the comedy that Herzog extracts at the end of this scene plays at the expense of the characters' connection and ultimately undermines its power.
Despite these flaws, there's much to like in "4000 Miles." Tightly directed by Mark Rucker, with typically excellent performances from the entire ACT cast, the play is consistently engaging. And, filled with the bitter-sweetness that is the common fodder of youth and old age, it helps us understand what connects the generations much more than what sets them apart.
But, had it set Vera at the heart of the action, it might have felt just a little more grounded. Instead, with the scattered, twenty-something Leo as the play's core, "4000 Miles" lacks the solid conviction that comes with experience and age.
"4000 Miles" plays through Feb. 10 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit the theater’s website