Some plays, by their very nature, are more fragile than others. And when that's the case, it is critical that every element of the production be finely tuned, lest the castle of toothpicks tumble into a pile.
4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, now at Dobama Theatre, is just such a work. It features a script by this estimable playwright that never takes easy paths, and is highlighted by one exceptional performance. But a significant misstep undercuts the veracity of the piece and lessens the impact it could otherwise have had.
Vera Joseph is an elderly lefty who is still occupying the Greenwich Village apartment she and her deceased husband lived in for many years during his tenure as a Communist activist. But her world is immediately invaded by her grandson, crunchy Leo, who has just biked (yes, biked!) in from Seattle.
After some awkward getting-to-know-you-again interchanges, it becomes clear Leo is in town to "finish what he started." This could involve his former girlfriend Bec, who is now a college student, or it might refer to Micah, Leo's bike-traveling buddy.
Playwright Herzog opts to build her story slowly, using small tidbits of information to show how Vera and Leo clash, interpersonally and inter-generationally, as well as how they bond. This is an artful and risky choice, since there are no large issues at stake that would send off showy sparks.
For example, both Leo and his grandma are committed political progressives, eliminating what would have been a predictable yet colorful conflict between a Tea Party granny and her Obama-loving grandson (or vice versa).
As a result, they duke it out over the largely insignificant details of life, such as a broken faucet handle, while each deals with a turning point in their lives. Vera is well aware that all her peers have died and mortality awaits, while Leo is floating in limbo, tormented by a recent tragedy and then agitated anew by the sudden appearance of Bec.
Once Leo's reunion with Bec goes south, he hooks up with a party girl, Amanda, who offers him a nanosecond of pleasure followed by more angst. That leaves Leo and Vera with just each other, and that's when the play finally digs deep into the power of compassion and affection that reaches across the boundaries of age.
As Vera, Dorothy Silver has edge aplenty as she motors through her flat, launching invective against "overweight" Bec and "stupid, childish" men. More importantly, Silver always feels entirely credible, whether she's backhanding Leo on his arm in frustration or hugging him as a buffer against her own isolation.
Trouble is, Silver's multidimensional Vera is forced to inhabit a criminally bland set, designed by Laura Carlson, which looks like the furthest thing from a liberal's long-term domicile. Decked out with faintly mauve woodwork and tiny, generic floral wall hangings, the set seems more like a room at a recently opened nursing home than a lived-in nest of a fire-breathing pinko (no faded Diego Rivera poster, no well-thumbed first edition of Animal Farm on the coffee table).
Matt O'Shea grows in the role of Leo, starting out with a very flat affect but gradually finding his footing. His later scenes with Silver and Rachel Lee Kolis, who gives a solid rendition of Bec, begin to plumb some of the depths of Herzog's deceptively simple story.
And as Amanda, Kat Bi lends some much-appreciated humor and spice to a production that at times is almost swallowed by its own slow and determined pace.
Director Joel Hammer wisely gives the script all the space it needs to spin its magic. But with a "character" missing (Vera's home, as it should look), 4000 Miles doesn't deliver the knockout left hook that it promises.