It's been a rough journey that brought 21-year-old Leo (Erik Moody), on a bicycle, all the way from Washington state to the Manhattan apartment of his grandma Vera (Alma Cuervo). Leo has finished his bike trip despite a terrible loss en route, and though he's finally hit the other coast, some part of his journey seems yet to be completed, in Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles. And though elderly Vera is an unlikely roommate for Leo, a free-spirited bike hippie, their hilarity, feuds, and communion together just might help him arrive. Stephen Underwood directs an alternately sweet and salty production of this feel-good odd-couple drama for Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.
HUGGING IT OUT The two main characters in 4000 Miles.
Despite their difference in age, Vera and Leo actually have a lot in common: She's a feisty old Greenwich Village lefty (a card-carrying communist, as Leo brags) whose general political bent often jives pretty well with Leo's. Leo's mother, on the other hand, disappoints both of them with her conventionality, and it's a big test of Vera's loyalties that Leo refuses to communicate with his mother, despite her worry. Vera and Leo share a refreshing, sometimes disarmingly candid rapport — not even sexual matters or f-bombs are off the table — as their tensions well and ebb between them over money, family, and how long he will agree to stay.
As Vera, Cuervo, a Broadway import, doesn't seem the full age of the woman she's portraying — 91! — but she slows the woman's body nicely as if with age. Her Vera is sassy in a measured way; she's candid with Leo but sometimes cautious, too, of how he might react. But she erupts sometimes; she has more personality than her rather placid apartment décor (beige and a bit anonymous, though the molding over the doorways perfectly evokes the inside of a brownstone).
As her grandson, lanky Moody has an excellent look for Leo; his jittery, boyish movements and diction evoke a sharp young man who still has one foot — or maybe more than just a foot — in adolescence. His mix of snarky rolled eyes and earnest stares conveys Leo's complicated relationship with irony, and while Moody makes clear Leo's affection for Vera, he gives perhaps even freer rein to the young man's impatience and sometimes petulance.
Particularly as young women enter the apartment and Leo and Vera's relationship — his maybe ex-girlfriend Bec (Casey Turner) and a would-be one-night paramour (Ruiqi Tang, doing a great drunk girl material girl) — Herzog's script gives everyone's banter lots of edges, leaps, and fizzles. This playwright's dialogue revels in the almost-said, the badly said, the interrupted, the failure of words or us failing at words: We hear Leo and Bec suffuse their otherwise intelligent banter with "like" and "I mean" as they strive to communicate; we watch the fiercely smart Vera's frustrations at having to resort to "whaddayacallit" for word after word, at one point even for "key." Underwood's actors have a good grasp of these fraught and often very funny foibles with language, though sometimes the pacing could be tighter, to maximize their tensions and the complicated emotions beneath.
It's only once these emotions come to the surface that Leo is finally able to edge a little closer to his own healing. And it's only as he watches Vera edge ever closer to the far end of the journey that he becomes better able to complete this so very early leg of his own.
4000 MILES | by Amy Herzog | Directed by Stephen Underwood | Produced by Good Theater, at the St. Lawrence Arts Center | through March 30 | 207.885.5883