With “4000 Miles,” characters search for destinations uknown

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The NOLA Project presents “4000 Miles”
WHAT: Regional premiere of Amy Herzog’s comedy-drama about the relationship between a former ’60s radical and her visiting grandson. Directed by Beau Bratcher, starring James Bartelle and Carol Sutton
WHEN: Wed.-Sat. (Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Oct. 30), 2 p.m. (Wed., Oct. 26 & Nov. 2: “Bike to Show Night” with discounted tickets for cyclists)
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20-$35 (vary per night)
MORE INFO: Visit event page

Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” might be one of the most counter-intuitive works to be found on New Orleans stages this fall. It’s nominally a two-person comedy-drama, which doesn’t necessarily play to The NOLA Project’s strength as a deep well of ensemble performers. As a family tale, it lacks the narrative crackle of such intimate works as, say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or the dreamlike quality of “The Glass Menagerie.” Even as a comedy-drama, you’re never really sure at which genre it particularly excels.

But in immediately recognizing what “4000 Miles” isn’t, there’s a danger of not recognizing what it is — a sublime meditation on honest and authentic human (and familial) emotions of honesty that features actors hitting all the right subtle notes in this pairing one of the city’s brightest young stars with one of its legends.

Even in its tight, 90-minute, one-act structure, and under the direction of Beau Bratcher, Herzog’s play creates a great deal of space for the two principal characters (and even two supporting characters) to present themselves as multi-dimensional and more than a little familiar. At its heart, literally and figuratively, are James Bartelle as Leo, showing up on the doorstep of his grandmother (Carol Sutton) showing more than the hard miles of his cross-county bicycle trek. Though familiar with each other’s work, Bartelle and Sutton are working together for the first time, and their chemistry together is immediate and astonishingly tender.

They’re both a little at odds with their future. Leo, having lost his best friend in an accident midway across the country, is directionless in life, much to the concern of his (unseen mother). Not that he was exactly driven before their trip, but the death has underscored an existential angst in Leo that should hit close to home for any millennials in the audience. By contrast, Vera is experiencing all of the losses of a nonagenarian, from teeth and words and hearing to her shrinking circle of friends, and she’s not taking it well. (Every tenth word, in her now-limited vocabulary, seems to be “whatchamacallit.” The worst part about growing old, she protests, is not being able to find the words.)

Their mutual concern for each other grows so naturally that, by the end of the play, you forget that they weren’t really that close at the beginning. There were signs, though; Vera’s a former ’60s radical, and it’s clear that Leo’s somewhere in that anti-establishment mix. He’s picked up her copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” and is digging it. While he initially is not prepared for her blunt candor, chafing when she calls his ex-girlfriend chubby, Leo grows to appreciate her honesty.

Likewise, Vera does not quite Leo or much of the information- and technology-obsessed generation, or its passion for newfound recreation. When he asks for money to go climb rocks in a gym, she gasps,“More than $50? To climb a wall?” But even Leo is not too crazy about technology. They both have computers, but Vera rarely uses hers. “I don’t like ’em,” says, who doesn’t even own a cellphone,“but I can use ’em.”

[Read more: James Bartelle comes a little closer to home]

Their differences might be underscored by the fact that they’re not even blood relatives. Adoption, with its vague whispers of distance, runs throughout “4000 Miles,” which might not sit too well with us folks who are keyed into the concept. But perhaps Herzog, in her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-nominated script, uses the device as a way to encourage her characters — as often unseen as seen — to encourage people to forge their connections with one another a little freer of the pressure of biological kinship.

Connections in “4000 Miles” are always messy, sometimes funny but always real, and this is where the supporting characters show their greatest value. There’s Bec, who, as played by Annie Cleveland, who as Leo’s ex-girlfriend feels fretful and concerned about him — and still very much in love with him — and not quite sure how to relate to Vera’s brutally frank observations. And there’s also Amanda, who, as hilariously played by Anna Toujas, represents possibly the world’s easiest one-night-stand opportunity for Leo. Even the admittedly “slutty” and drunken Amada senses red flags. When he gets her name wrong, she jokes that he’s only set himself back about 20 minutes, but ultimately her antenna warns her off from even a casual hook-up with a guy who clearly needs to work his personal shit out.

Vera’s world is surprisingly complicated for a woman of a certain age we think we know. We only know she’s been married twice, but not the why and how of it until later. And her problematic relationship with her next-door neighbor (another older woman) — carried on strictly by phone — only complicates her lonely existence in her Greenwich Village apartment.

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James Bartelle and Annie Cleveland. (Photo by John Barrois)

Like a slow-drip faucet, facts, truths and anecdotes plop into the story, and we learn more about Vera’s romantic life and Leo’s tragic loss (often with the help of a shared marijuana joint). We learn, awkwardly, of Leo’s problems connecting with the people in his life, including his relationship with his tone-deaf mother and one with this adopted sister — a relationship that borders on the incestuous.

As mentioned previously, Bratcher handles this understated story and his actors with equal subtlety; at no point do we get much in the form of fireworks, and this is a good thing. These are characters and themes Bratcher wants us to find and understand and sympathize with on steady emotional terms, and if at times “4000 Miles” errs on the side of narrative caution, it’s forgivable.

The same can be said for John Grimsley’s set design — a spare apartment with a flood of books but light on art hanging on the walls — and Joan Long’s lighting. (Only the changing shade of light streaming from an outside window and against the building’s wall tells us what time of day it is.)

[Learn more: Read Ted Mahne’s review on NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]

“4000 Miles” might not be the grandiose relationship story that gets some theater audiences all worked up — but by the end of the journey, thanks especially to this gifted cast — you’ll realize by the drive home just how far you’ve come.

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2 thoughts on “With “4000 Miles,” characters search for destinations uknown

  1. Pingback: “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV, Ep. 1: James Bartelle, Beau Bratcher, Quinn McCourt | PopSmart NOLA

  2. Pingback: “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM): Let’s start a discussion together | PopSmart NOLA

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