by Richard Dodds
The main attraction is a comfortably conventional drama, but what transpires on stage before it is an ill omen for live theater if it is in fact a harbinger of the future. As we gaze at Erik Flatmo's realistically detailed living room set for 4000 Miles while waiting for the house lights to dim, a proscenium-sized screen descends on which promotions for upcoming ACT attractions and programs are projected before we are requested to "Like us on Facebook." At least the world we are then invited to join in Amy Herzog's play is not one of hoop skirts and powdered wigs, but rather a contemporary story that exists on the same technologically invasive homepage as the coming-attractions trailer through which we cannot fast-forward.
But there are remnants of an earlier time in the world of Vera Joseph, the elderly widow who inhabits this Manhattan apartment. Her telephone has a dial, and she elicits a guffaw from her grandson when she produces a tome of Yellow Pages to locate a local business. Yes, this is a generational- and cultural-gap story, and of the healing bridges that can ultimately be built, and it would be surprising if that didn't sound familiar.
But playwright Herzog handles the situations with emotional and comical exchanges of often-subtle nuance if not revelatory theatrics. The basic plot can be summed up without difficulty. Grandson Leo has undertaken a bike trek from Seattle to New York, and arrives unexpectedly at his grandmother's apartment with an obviously heavy heart. Grandma Vera is a feisty old dame with a lefty past, doesn't get some of her grandson's newfangled manners, but gives him space enough until he can finally reveal the sources of his sorrows. Comic relief comes in such matters as grandson and grandmother smoking pot together, prompting Vera to provide TMI on her past sex life.
Issues of mortality, from radically different perspectives, inform their relationship, which becomes the play's most serious dramatic territory but that still doesn't feel deeply dug. Leo's sort-of ex-girlfriend arrives to call him out on some of his B.S., and a casual pickup serves as a manic pixie dream girl, to borrow from the title of a play at another ACT facility. And then there are the herrings that if not red are certainly blushing, such as a briefly invoked case of peyote-induced pseudo incest.
Such left-field topics do not undercut the security provided by a play that basically colors within the lines, and Mark Rucker's direction adheres to that design. As Leo, Reggie Gowland achieves the tricky task of being a likeable jerk, and Susan Blommaert has a keen bead on the lovably crotchety but wise Vera. Julia Lawler and Camille Mana play the women in Leo's life with precision.
The intermissionless play, well received in an off-Broadway run in 2011, never overstays its welcome. It's an amiably dramatic, amiably humorous, and amiably interesting piece of sturdy playmaking. And no, there aren't any post-show commercials to yank us out of our amiable mood.
4000 Miles will run through Feb. 10 at ACT. Tickets are $25-$140. Call 749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.