Showcases aren’t just for hungry producers sniffing around for fresh material; they can also help emerging playwrights spot the flaws in their works-in-progress. But a slick professional workshop — like the production of Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” helmed by Daniel Aukin for Lincoln Center’s LCT3 — can also fool scribes (not to mention the civilians in the audience) into thinking there’s more to a play script than meets the eye.
There’s little to fault in helmer Aukin’s whipsmart handling of Herzog’s generational play about a 21-year-old college student who takes refuge in his 91-year-old grandmother’s New York apartment after his best friend is killed on their cross-country bike ride. If anything, the classy production shrewdly disguises the fact that this is a dull play, constructed of disjointed scenes that say nothing and lead nowhere.
Set designer Lauren Helpern has conjured a generic little-old-lady’s rent-controlled apartment in the Village and added just the right touches (Mexican pottery, wooden masks, and lots and lots of books) to personalize it as the home of a real person.
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Thesp Mary Louise Wilson (“Grey Gardens”) takes it from there. A consummate pro who excels at independent women with strong spines and sharp tongues, the actress plays the nonagenarian Vera Joseph as a tough old lady who has outlived her husband and most of her friends, but hasn’t lost the contrary spirit that made her a political firebrand back in her Marxist days. Even now, as she shuffles around in slippers groping for the words that fail her, she somehow seems indomitable.
That’s also the way Vera seems to her grandson, Leo (Gabriel Ebert, doing his job), who has arrived at her place in the middle of the night after a 4,000-mile bike ride from California. Something’s bothering this sullen youth, but he doesn’t say what. In fact, he doesn’t say much of anything, which is what makes him such a grindingly dull character.
Luckily for Leo, his grandmother doesn’t make any impossible demands of him, not even the expectation that he should act like a civilized human being. Between feeding the kid and doing his laundry, Vera speaks aloud some of the thoughts that she’s had to keep to herself. (Luckily, Herzog has made her a more interesting conversationalist than her glum grandson.) And before she knows it, the lonely old lady has become comfortable, even happy, with someone else in the house.
There are a few other welcome diversions from the unrelenting monotony of watching Leo brooding in misery — specifically, two potential girlfriends played with a bit of spirit by Zoe Winters and Greta Lee. But the play keeps circling back to Leo and the secret he keeps clutched inside until the Big Reveal in the final scene.
That secret is more or less what you’d expect from someone who watched his best friend die in a road accident, and it’s hardly worth the long wait. More to the point, the I’ve-got-a-secret setup is a withholding tactic rather than a legitimate form of dramatic storytelling, and the scene in which Leo finally unburdens himself doesn’t qualify as plotted action.
In fact, if it weren’t for the pure energy of Wilson’s performance, this play would be D.O.A.