A 21-year-old hippie ends up on his cantankerous 91-year-old grandmother’s doorstep in New York City’s West Village at 3 a.m., after completing a cross-country bike trip, and wants to crash for a few days. Later, fireworks ensue as the two continually rub each other the wrong way while sharing close quarters. Sounds like a great premise for a TV situational comedy, right?
Fortunately, “4000 Miles” — Amy Herzog’s dramatic comedy, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2011, opened Thursday, May 9 in the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre at the Phoenix Theatre — is less superficial than that plot description implies.
Though bitingly funny, it is also a very affecting tale about the relationship of a generational odd couple that is initially riddled with conflict but eventually becomes one that feels safe and comfortable, giving them much needed companionship.
Proficiently directed by regular Phoenix actor Bill Simmons and produced by Bryan Fonseca, “4000 Miles” features a cast that includes Martha Jacobs (another Phoenix veteran) as Vera, Andrew Martin as Leo, Arianne Villareal as Amanda and Jacqueline Keyes as Bec.
“4000 Miles” finds comedy in the predictable age differences between Leo and Vera, such as his generation’s cell phones and texting and the old dial phone she still uses, but it also explores the common ground they find. His liberal free-spiritedness and her radical politics — forged during her marriage to her late husband who was a Communist writer and activist — clearly signify that they are cut from the same cloth.
The tie that binds them together most profoundly, however, is their mutual struggle with mortality. In Leo’s case, he’s still processing the death of his best friend Micah, who accompanied him on the bike trip but lost his life while the two were on the open road. Vera, who wears a hearing aid and struggles to find her words, is not only forced to endure the physical challenges and indignities associated with old age, but also has to deal with the sadness of watching all her friends die off.
Jacobs, who was most recently seen as the matriarch in the Phoenix’s hit production of “August: Osage County,” turns out another magnificent performance as the octogenarian Vera. Jacobs’ portrayal of the physical frailty that comes with advanced age was nearly flawless, as her character shuffles about her apartment, sits down in a chair or struggles to hear.
Her Vera also revealed the complexity of a woman who managed to maintain her dignity — even though her late husband frequently cheated on her — and whose independence, generosity of spirit and dedication to her radical political beliefs never waver, but instead follow her into her old age. Also evident in her characterization was Vera’s capacity to show tenderness and compassion toward her grandson who is grieving not only the loss of his friend also a breakup with his girlfriend Bec.
Andrew Martin also turned in an appealing performance as Leo, an idealistic and adventuresome, yet aimless, young man who lives for the moment but is forced to confront the realities of adulthood and responsibility. Martin was also effective in capturing Leo’s warmth and generosity, which contrasted with the stubbornness and quick temper that mirrored that of his grandmother.
Together, Jacobs and Martin are completely believable in their depiction of the bond that exists between their characters. And nowhere is their chemistry more evident than during a scene in which Leo and Vera, aided by some pot, discuss what would be considered by most some pretty taboo subjects.
Another is during a late-night chat when Leo reveals to Vera exactly how Micah died. As they sit together on the couch in Vera’s darkened living room, both bathed in minimal light, the mood is one of quiet intimacy made possible by lighting designer Laura Glover’s impeccable artistry.
Arianne Villareal’s vivid performance as the over-the-top Amanda, a flirty, vivacious Chinese-American design student who Leo picks up and brings back to his grandmother’s apartment for a late-night drunken fling, was hilarious.
Jacqueline Keyes played Leo’s girlfriend Bec, a serious-minded, rather humorless college student whose maturity and priorities don’t match up with Leo’s and who eventually breaks off their relationship in frustration.
Designed by Linda Janosko, Vera’s West Village apartment, which is filled with books, photos and memorabilia providing clues about her interests and history, is remarkable for its detail — right up to the bevy of prescription bottles sitting on top of Vera’s fridge. It’s also one of the best examples of stagecraft seen at the Phoenix.
Phoenix sound designer Tim Brickley’s original music score served to enhance rather than intrude on a story that was alternately sweet, sad and comical.
Ashley Kiefer, who designed the costumes, also paid attention to detail, and nowhere was her illustration of a character’s personality more evident than the delightful outfit she created for Amanda, whose funky, art-school vibe and attitude shone through.
For tickets and information about “4000 Miles” at the Phoenix Theatre, call (317) 635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.
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