In Herzog’s latest, politics (and generational confusion) take a smaller stage

Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson. (Photo by Erin Baiano.)
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After a cross-country bike trip, the protagonist of Amy Herzog’s engaging new play 4000 Miles, Leo, shows up in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s apartment in the West Village.

He’s offended that she wonders why he didn’t call first, that she wants to let his mother knows he’s OK, and even that she hesitates to give him $50 so he can “get the old upper body back in shape” at a local climbing wall.

I saw the play with my 16-year-old nephew who's in town for the week. He described Leo as a "major D with a B," a bit of current slang he then schooled me in. We agreed the term describes Leo.

Leo's grandmother Vera is pretty cool about things. She gives him a bed and shows him where she keeps the cash (he promises to leave a note when he helps himself, but forgets). But she doesn’t let everything slide, gently chastising him when he explains that his self-centered behavior is “not something I can take responsibility for.”

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There are a few other characters—Leo’s ex-girlfriend Bec and would-be one-night-stand Amanda appear now and then—but 4000 Miles is really all about Leo and Vera. Mary Louise Wilson, so memorable as the delightfully deranged Big Edie in Grey Gardens, is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Vera, an old-school lefty who is still a bit adrift more than a decade after losing her husband. Her wisecracks are always accompanied by a completely straight face, so at first you’re not sure if she’s in on the joke.

Gabriel Ebert, on the other hand, isn’t completely convincing as Leo. He easily handles Leo’s thoughtless behavior and condescending attitude, but he can’t quite conjure up the charisma that the character requires: If there’s no vulnerability underneath all that whining and those wisecracks, it’s not clear why Vera puts up with him, or why the young women in his life find him so irresistible.

Several of their scenes together are more successful than others, such as when Vera recalls the discussions about communism she had with her late husband. “Marx is cool,” Leo replies, thinking he understands and yet not getting it at all. And when they smoke a joint together, the things they blurt out from behind a cloud of smoke are as inappropriate as they are uproarious.

As Bec, Zoë Winters is winning as a smart young woman who overthinks everything. As high-strung Amanda, a kooky student at Parsons who’s every bit as self-involved as Leo, Greta Lee has just one scene but probably gets half the laughs. (“Dude!” she screeches. “I’m not sure if I can get it on in a communist’s apartment.”) Director Daniel Aukin allows a few too many meaningless meaningful pauses from his cast, but otherwise handles them with subtlety and grace.

The LCT3 production is handsome though, starting with the pitch-perfect set by Lauren Helpern. Everything seems like something Vera would cherish, down to the Latin-American pottery lining the shelves. She’s aided and abetted by Japhy Weideman, whose lighting nearly steals the show. The gold-flecked light of early morning creeping in the windows is gorgeous.

Herzog's After the Revolution made a splash last year at Playwrights Horizons (I reviewed it here in November); and there, too, a grandparent and grandchild are tasked to find common ground when politics clash. But where After the Revolution served as a rather large interrogation of 90's politics, 4000 Miles is a smaller play about a particular relationship. (The casting is also less ambitious than After the Revolution.) For all that, 4000 Miles is just as impressive.

The LCT3 production of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is playing at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Tickets are $20 and are available at 646-223-3010 or www.dukeon42.org.