Simon Jenner in West Sussex
12 May 2023
As in the plot of the play, waves of past calamity are still arriving. Cancelled at the Old Vic in March 2020 on account of the pandemic, Amy Herzog’s 2011 play now opens at Chichester’s Minerva directed by Richard Eyre.
Elizabeth Chu and Sebastian Croft. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
It still leads with its original actor playing the role of Vera Joseph (Eileen Atkins) but the actor playing Leo Joseph-Connell has changed. (Sebastian Croft replaces Timothée Chalamet). So, the plot? A 21-year-old grandson on a west-east bike trip crashes into his 91-year-old grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment, and stays for weeks, refusing to return home. It takes a while for him – and us – to work out why.
With the pandemic between, it’s a bit harder to recall Herzog’s (also 2011) piece Belleville, mounted at the Donmar in 2018. In 4000 Miles Herzog reverts to her natural idiom: the scrupulous realism of writers like Annie Baker, Emily Schwend, Audrey Cefaly, Lindsey Ferrentino and (if differently) Jonathan Spector following Richard Nelson (of Apple and Gabriel Family plays). Herzog was his pupil.
A Pulitzer finalist, Herzog’s play not only features her grandmother, but that grandmother pronounces on the play – and Herzog – in the programme. The second of Herzog’s explorations of her left-wing family – while remaining apolitical herself to the chagrin of her grandmother – it arguably pulls punches: not personally but politically.
In a work exploring silences, mis-hearings and losses of memory, there are small crucial gaps in Herzog’s willingness to engage. Unlike plot-hurtling Belleville though, 4000 Miles unfolds, arguably more convincingly, and still fascinates so confirming Herzog as a leading U.S. dramatist.
Nell Barlow and Sebastian Croft. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Atkins’s Vera is a delightfully accusing figure whose words sting and whose minute gestures, often missed, often with a wrist-flick, bless. She however reads actions (including one uproarious one) but can miss words. Generous and fearful of loneliness, Vera fusses over Leo, lamenting his lack of direction and equivocal readiness to leave; how he needs a bath. “You smell much better” she concedes as high praise shortly after his arrival. But can’t he honestly confess when he breaks things? They’re in fact broken years back.
There’s fragility and rage in Atkins’s “whaddayacallit?” refrain, a sense of loss piling as high as the books in vertiginous wall-to-wall white shelving in Peter McKintosh’s detailed apartment living room with rugs, sofa, other volumes stacked like small hypercausts; all somehow caught in a politics that withered around 1980. Peter Mumford’s lighting seems unobtrusive in dark gulphs and soft lighting until it suddenly glares in symbolic truth-telling. The effect is disconcertingly bright: you know something is up, brushed with John Leonard’s sound.
Chemistry between Croft’s Leo and Vera is charged with truth heard and unheard. Ironically the normally unspoken is made clearest. Vera on her sexual life (the best outside her two marriages, one husband’s lover pleading friendship) is matched by Leo, who confides of wavering girlfriend Bec (Nell Barlow, a winningly exasperated-but-loving performance) – who calls twice: “Bec has kind of a weird pussy, but I like it.” More disturbingly he casually protests the depth of tongue he used kissing his adopted sister, Bec present, was only “mid”. The sister’s in therapy (not related Leo states), their later Skype interrupted, full of unspoken glitch.
Nell Barlow as Bec. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
It’s one motive for Leo’s not returning home. Another lies in the trip, related in excoriating detail, which Vera never hears.
Croft balances Leo’s clean-cut warmth and heedlessness with unspoken seepings-out that complicate his life and nature; and swings of resolve and switchback.
Leo’s chance hook-up with Chinese-American Amanda (Elizabeth Chu, projecting comedy in Amanda’s self-deprecatingly lusty, fatally curious character) highlights the play’s potential and gaps. Having survived forgetting her name (Amanda scores how close they are to bed on such fundamentals) redeemed by mentioning death (sure-fire for sex) Amanda’s disturbed first by Vera blundering in but even more so by picking up a book on communism.
“Are you a communist?” Amanda accuses. Leo’s negative recalls how earlier he’d protested to Vera he admired Marx: not the same thing of course. But politics here seems tripping boobytraps in a dangerous museum; Vera’s elemental pride untapped. Set in the year of Occupy Wall Street (2010) Leo’s refusals are as worth exploring as his traumas.
Barlow’s Bec carries the burden of Leo’s inadequacies: running, courting abandonment. Leo’s character needs someone of his generation to hold him to account, even more than Bec’s allowed to. Having brought two other characters into the work, Herzog tends to underuse them. Amanda’s presence is a set piece, but Bec’s is a reservoir of possibility. That’s made clear in her final appearance, discovering what Leo’s managed to do for Vera. Perhaps another ten minutes in the 90 here might have rounded personal and apolitical.
But that’s to cavil. This is still a play rich enough to see again and wonder if you’ve missed something. Herzog unpacks a generation’s distance, including its silences and incomplete unrest into this intimate space. Compelling, teasing, and with Croft and particularly Atkins, a masterclass in how the wrong truths get delivered, but never true feeling.