Sometimes it’s possible to be captivated by a play about ordinary people in ordinary circumstances — a play in which nothing particularly dynamic or transformative happens, and in which the dialogue is not particularly profound or lyrical or clever.
Such was the case for me with New York playwright Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2011. Its success here is in large part due to American Conservatory Theater’s flawless production by a four-actor ensemble under the direction of Mark Rucker.
It’s 3 a.m. Leo (lanky, bushy-haired Reggie Gowland) has just appeared with bicycle in the Manhattan apartment of his grandmother, Vera (65-year-old actor Susan Blommaert in a precise, unshowy portrayal of a 91-year-old.)
Things start awkwardly between them. She’s been woken abruptly and doesn’t have her dentures in; he’s tired but determinedly affable (despite a very long bike journey with a tragedy in the middle of it that he hasn’t yet processed) and some serious unfinished business with his family back home in the Midwest.
His girlfriend (Julia Lawler) is a student here in New York, although that relationship proves to be not quite what Leo thought it was.
Over the course of about an hour and a half without intermission, through a series of juicy little scenes in Vera’s living room (excellent representation by Erik Flatmo of a spacious but casually cluttered, rent-controlled New York City flat), the awkwardness between grandmother and grandson takes its bumpy course.
Vera’s a crusty old leftie who doesn’t mince words. Leo’s a woodsy, latter-day hippie who, as Vera tartly points out, hasn’t quite learned to take responsibility for his actions — a quality for which down-to-earth Bec clearly has no more tolerance.
The play ambles along at a well-modulated pace, as Leo contemplates the trajectory of his young life and Vera struggles with the infirmities of age and the oddness of suddenly having a roommate, for however long.
Moments of gentle comedy abound as the two share a joint, as Vera scolds and counsels an unreceptive Leo, as Leo brings home a ditsy date from a club (Camille Mana), and as Vera and Leo attempt to breach the generation gap, and sometimes, briefly, succeed.
“4000 Miles” is a subtle, delicate drama with comic touches, and it takes a team like this — a director with a finely tuned ear, and carefully crafted, authentic performances – to pull it off.
If you go: 4000 Miles
- Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
- When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes Feb. 10,
- Tickets: $20 to $105
- Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org