Amy Herzog is an intelligent, delicately articulate writer with a piquant, arresting subject: the waning days of the far-left tradition in America. Her After the Revolution, seen earlier this year at Playwrights Horizons, was one of last season’s most intriguing plays: Arriving in tandem with works like Lisa Kron’s In the Wake and Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, it suggested renewed theatrical interest in leftist matters past and present. I know nothing about the three writers’ biographies beyond what’s inferable from their plays, but they seem to share, if not a red-diaper childhood, at least an experienced observer’s close interest in American Communists and their offspring.
In 2011, this amounts to a paradox. To the vast majority of Americans, communism has been a no-no for at least six decades. But, as in 1951, when headlines regularly screamed the word, few Americans have even a dim notion of what communism is, how it might differ from socialism (latterly a favorite right-wing cussword), or how either, as theories, differed from what Soviet Communism and the CPUSA did in practice. Born in the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution, the left has had a perennially contentious history of dissent and schism, whereas the right’s principal conflict has always been over which of two unworkable tyrannies from the past it wishes to cling to: totalitarian theocracy or unrestrained oligarchy.
Herzog’s characters in 4000 Miles add up, not to a drama, but to a panorama of leftist spirits who carom about, organizationless, in today’s inexplicably rightist world: an old-left grandmother (Mary Louise Wilson); her resolutely anti-urban, anti-corporate-system grandson (Gabriel Ebert); his on-again/off-again, but mostly off-again, girlfriend (Zoe Winters); and the seemingly flaky but utterly astute Chinese-American youngster (Greta Lee) he picks up for a fling that fails to get flung. In an earlier era, this disparate quartet might have found itself making common cause, with due allowance for dissension, but our time, for the left, seems replete with Chekhovian disconnections and misunderstandings. The right has pervaded the mainstream too thoroughly; the issues raised by its encroachment on our lives have become too complex for unilateral attack.
In an earlier decade, there might have been a central party or movement, a dogma to be debated, a central issue over which a united campaign could be fought. But these are the waning last days for the old version of left politics, and the new version, which will duly sweep up all of our technologizing world’s recent changes and complications in one unified field theory, has not yet been born, though it’s clearly on the way. Meantime, encounters of the kind Herzog graphs, compassionately, among left-thinking people end irresolutely, or dissipate into nothing, giving her play the unresolved, undramatic quality of a set of short stories. Like the landed gentry who populate Chekhov’s plays, and whose world would crumble with World War I and the Russian Revolution, Herzog’s people are conscious of a large absence in their lives, but not wholly able to define it.
Though named Leo, Herzog’s hero is neither a king nor a beast (and astrologically he’s a Virgo). His grandmother’s name, Vera, means “truth,” but she’s arrived at the age where her mind no longer supplies the correct word; truth is now imprecise. Two deaths of offstage characters, a young man full of promise and an old woman with a magically green thumb, frame the play. The first, which has occurred while Leo and his best friend were on a cross-country bicycle trip, has traumatized him; his actions during the second somewhat alleviate the trauma. But the loving bond between the generations never reaches fullness; the people remain disparate.
Daniel Aukin’s direction matches Herzog’s naturalistic delicacy of detail, perhaps almost too faithfully: The tone is often so muted, the pace so leisurely in its authenticity, that the dramatic action, already tenuous, nearly disappears. Japhy Weideman’s hyper-realistic lighting frequently leaves faces in shadow—and Wilson, authoritative even when embodying a scatterbrain, has a face that deserves bright light. Within the low-key context, Ebert plays with convincing truthfulness; the two young women chase the dizzying mental shifts in Herzog’s text with gleeful skill. Though small and slight in substance, 4000 Miles nevertheless has substance to it, but the bigness implied by its title lies only in the gaps between its characters.