Saturday, August 9, 2014

The actors go the distance as 4000 Miles spins its wheels

Life looks better when you're stoned, and to be honest, so does this play. (Photo: Gary Ng)

I'm happy to report that with its current show, 4000 Miles, feisty little Gloucester Stage has once again showcased some of the best acting in the Boston area.

But I also have to say (once again) that all that talent has been put in service of a play that's only - well, serviceable. Miles is a mildly amusing evening, sure, but given the acting firepower assembled here - and the huzzahs for playwright Amy Herzog rising from New York and Washington - you expect the show to combust, rather than mostly sputter like a damp squib.

But what can I say?  I guess times are tough in New York and D.C.! Of course the critic who went gaga over it at the Times was none other than Charles Isherwood, and we all know by now to take him with at least a grain of salt (or maybe a whole shaker to be on the safe side). "The Ish" (as he's known) often loses his head over the protégées of favored gurus at certain egghead redoubts, and needless to say, Herzog has been launched from Yale, and has triangulated her little dramedy to appeal to familiar audience segments on the East and West Sides, two demographics very near and dear to the heart of the Arts section at the Times. (It probably helps that Herzog is married to Sam Gold, the director who has been tending the inflation of Annie Baker's plays of late - to similar acclaim from the Ish.)

But alas, in dramatic terms Herzog has also triangulated her script between a romcom and a sitcom - with the resulting hybrid tagging the sentimental conventions of both genres, only to little dramatic effect. Although we get the impression that Herzog is also signaling (via authorial semaphore) that her whole idea is to have no dramatic effect. (In this way she reminds me a bit of my awkward little niece, who announces after every unintentional spill, "I meant to do that!")

You see Herzog's 91-year-old lead, "Vera" (Nancy E. Carroll) - who's unexpectedly playing hostess to a crunchily conflicted nephew in her Manhattan apartment - has begun to "lose her words," and maybe some of her memory, too.  And so the playwright seems to think it's okay to lose her grip on story and structure in much the same way.  Thus weird inciting incidents arise, but then are dropped - and love interests come and go - while the plot, such as it is, hinges on not one but two deaths we never see, of characters we never meet; you could almost call these choices brave, if they weren't so meandering . . . but there you have it.  "The Ish" raved, so Herzog is The Next Big Thing, at least for a while.

And to be fair, she's not the worst Next Big Thing to be launched by the Times. Herzog does have a light touch with dialogue, and intermittently manages an atmosphere of eccentric affection between Vera and "Leo" (Tom Rash), the callow biker taking an extended break from a cross-country ride on her sofa - a ride, btw, that he saw no reason to end when his best friend was squashed under a truckload of Tyson chickens!  Oh, well - maybe he was distracted by memories of frenching his sister while high on peyote, as he recounts in an earlier scene.  Or maybe he was still fixated on memories of his mother doing the same thing!

What, that sounds like the opening scene of some wicked little satire of New Age mores?  Well, not in Herzog's book - move along, nothing dramatic to see here, and at any rate something even more bizarre is going to be dropped off-handedly in the next scene, trust me.  The whole graduate-school mélange does briefly come together when Vera and Leo trade war stories while wasted (at top).  My advice regarding an earlier new play at Gloucester was to come late.  This time, it's probably best to go stoned. And bring Charles Isherwood.

Even if we don't get to watch a great play, though, we get to watch a great cast, anchored by local star Nancy Carroll, who as Hub Review regulars know is kind of in a class by herself.  This isn't exactly news, of course, everybody agrees - I think it was almost seven years ago that I said Carroll should be given the keys to the city for her performances so far, and she has only gotten better since then. When people ask me what "truth" in acting looks like, I usually say, "Just watch Nancy Carroll." Because she is always honest, and never vain - and the sheer economy of her performances is legendary; Carroll does more with less than probably any actress in town. Her no-nonsense take on Vera's poignant decline almost saves this script all by itself, and she does manage to conjure, with little help from the playwright, a budding sense of connection with Leo.  But the rest of the (non-Equity) cast, under the direction of Eric C. Engel, is only a small step behind - although newcomer Tom Rash, while the perfect physical type for Leo (and an attentive foil for Carroll) manages to suggest less unspoken turmoil than perhaps he should. But as his two love interests (one long- and one very-short-term), both Sarah Oakes Muirhead and Samantha Ma do more with their roles than perhaps Herzog's rough dramaturgy deserves.  So everybody more or less goes the distance - if only this play were in gear!

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