4000 Miles is the story of a lumbersexual and his Marxist grandmother, Leo Joseph-Connell (played by Gabriel Murphy) and Vera Joseph (played by Linda Kelsey). The show starts as Leo buzzes Vera’s apartment door in Manhattan late at night. He enters, covered in grime and apology, having arrived in New York after a cross-country bike trip from Seattle. He has no cell phone and no computer, didn’t bother to call ahead of time and, at the first sign of Vera’s tentativeness, immediately issues a passive-aggressive ultimatum. He interprets her surprise as rejection: he says he can go camping if she knows an out-of-the-way spot.

“You’re in Manhattan!” she explains.

Kelsey embodies eightysomething pinko grandma like a champ, and I had some daydreams about paying her to play my Dream Grandma at next year’s Easter brunch, or something. I like Vera, partly because she’s the best written character and partly because Kelsey nails the niche of “politically progressive Silent Generation lady.” And why Leo is so snippy and impatient with her is unfathomable. His grandma lives in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Manhattan littered with progressive political books! She lets him stay there rent-free! She “lends” him money as long as he tracks it! She has permissive but healthy attitudes toward sex and drugs! Vera is the platonic ideal of the social-democrat grandma. She is the kind of grandparent one would normally have to import from Holland or Denmark.

Grandma fantasies aside, the rest of the hour and a half is a amiable, familiar and inconsequential story. Leo pouts a good amount and there is a rewarding, agreeably subtle moment when, applying for a job leading groups of rock climbers in Colorado, he jokes about how his clients will be clueless rich kids. He then mentions what a great time he had at the same resort in high school.

Leo is joined by an ex-girlfriend, Bec (Becca Hart), and a full-time art student/part-time bar skank, Amanda (Joann Oudekerk). The youths have a lot of harsh edges to their personalities and take themselves far too seriously and say things like, “I don’t make those allowances based on gender!” and “I found a community garden!” If you’re a white DFLer under the age of 70 and live in Hennepin or Ramsey County, you already know these people and you know them well. There was a good deal of laughter of recognition coming from the audience, as if to say, “Yep, that sounds like X” where X represents someone who has super-strong opinions about dedicated bike lanes. (Full disclaimer: I have super-strong opinions about dedicated bike lanes.)

What unifies everyone is an apparent inability to finish sentences. Every character trails off, as if… It’s a way, I suppose, that the playwright can make the characters make statements without… After all, you don’t want your characters to be only a mouthpiece for…

Flirting with politics but not taking politics home

There are certain observations to be made about how these are richer-than-average people with better-than-average access to everything that makes some American lives markedly easier to lead than other American lives. None of those observations would be inaccurate. But for all the flirtation with politics, this is in no way a political show.

Playwright Amy Herzog introduces the idea that political I.D. is not the same as kinship. Like Vera, you can hate your comrades as individuals and that’s a-okay. It’s an idea in need of wider circulation.

No, what propels the show forward are how Leo and Vera cope with loss. Without giving too much away, Leo has a couple traumatic stories to tell. They’re not shattering, but they’re definitely the kind of thing that would give a kid his age pause. And Vera is at an age when, due to heartache and exasperation, rage fills the places where friends and faculties once were.

Who is dumb precisely?

Vera’s anger—-her impulse to lash out when hurt or frustrated—is plausible. It is increasingly baffling why her grandson would, week after week, continue to interpret her anger so one dimensionally. He seems to be paying attention to her. He seems to be growing closer to her. Yet he interprets her behavior in the most ham-fistedly literal ways. The script more or less explains this with a disappointing “Boys sure are dumb, amirite?!”

It’s not like Leo gets a whole lot more understanding. Someone emotionally (and at the time of death, physically) close to Leo died, and no one has any patience with or understanding for how Mr. Bike Hippie is choosing to mourn. His is disenfranchised grief; no one considers his expression of grief valid. And while Leo’s choices all seem exceedingly reasonable and understandable to me, he conceals a whole lot of information from a whole lot of people. The lack of direct exposition is admirable, I suppose. But man, this takes a long time to unravel.

So it wasn’t with a small amount of relief when Leo spills the beans to Grandma late at night. He tells his story—-on a beautifully lit, beautifully designed stage, I must mention—-and the two of them simply sit there, quiet, because Vera is filled with the wisdom that sometimes being present is all anyone really needs.

But then came the motherfucking punch line. Vera doesn’t have her hearing aid in! Ha. Ha! HAHAHAHAHAHA! Ow, my ribs!

I could see the joke coming from a hundred miles away. I was hoping, wishing, praying that Herzog was going to show some damn restraint and not go where every single attendee of a drop-in beginners’ improv class would go.

But no.

Stray observations:

  • Overheard: “I have four granddaughters between 22 and 27 and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live with any of ’em.”
  • Look at you, Park Square Theatre’s new Andy Boss Thrust Stage! There are drink holders attached to the seat backs, so you can use the seats in front of you as a bar. It’s tremendous.
  • I’ve been spending more time in St. Paul lately, and it’s nice to see that the plan to give Minneapolis a run for its money after 5 o’clock is working out so well. I had to hunt for parking. In St. Paul. After work hours. On a Wednesday. And there were tons of people on the street. So good job, Mayor Chris Coleman!