Old and young bridge age gap in touching 4000 Miles

Amy Herzog was so influenced by her sparkplug of a Jewish grandmother, she wanted the world to know. So she wrote a play about her. Then another one.

That latest work for stage, the two-time Obie Award–winning “4000 Miles,” is making its West Coast premiere with a new ACT production at San Francisco’s Geary Theater, playing through Feb. 10.

The play, which premiered in 2011 at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, centers on Vera, a nonagenarian New Yorker whose short-term memory may be shorting out, but who easily recalls a rich love life and her radical left-wing politics. When Vera’s 21-year-old grandson, a neo-hippie named Leo, comes to visit during a cross-country bike trip, the two become a latter-day odd couple.

Amy Herzog photo/rachel levy

It’s a touching story about aging and communicating honestly across the generations. One thing missing from the play: any theatrical embellishment. No disembodied voiceovers, no rear-screen projections, no time-traveling ghosts.

“It is mostly naturalistic,” said the New York playwright. “My experiment was to let the characters drive everything, and trust that would end up a full [theatrical] experience. I just let the people talk to each other.”

There is nothing overtly Jewish about the play. Vera never utters a single “Oy vey.” But there’s no mistaking the character for anything but a first-generation Jewish American. There’s just something about her reverence for learning, her passion for making the world a better place, that gives Vera’s Jewish DNA away.

“Vera is a very particular kind of Jewish person,” Herzog says. “A very secular anti-religious Jew, both extremely proud of her cultural heritage and extremely disdainful of the religion.”

That description fits Herzog’s real grandmother, Greenwich Village resident Leepee Joseph, who passed that secular, social justice zeal on to her descendants, including the 33-year-old playwright. The product of an interfaith marriage, Herzog says she always self-identified as Jewish and felt connected to Jewish culture.

Why was her grandmother so influential?

“I romanticized her worldview for many years,” Herzog says. “Most of my life I was really enamored of the way politics were so uniting for her generation. It wasn’t until much later that I started questioning her politics. But that’s who she is, and I wanted to capture her in all her nuance.”

The New Jersey native studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. She found success quickly, with earlier works like “The Wendy Play” and “After the Revolution” garnering good reviews. The latter, which explores her grandmother’s earlier years, won a Lillian Hellman Award.

Herzog lives in Brooklyn with her husband, stage director Sam Gold, and their young son.

Not all of her reviews have been good. She’s been skewered by the New Yorker, but it’s not a problem for Herzog, who says she never reads reviews.

Herzog says she may have a third Vera play in her still. She’s also been courted by Hollywood and has a screenplay under way. But the stage is where her heart lies, in part because she likes the teamwork.

“My personality is pretty collaborative and even deferential,” she says. “In all sincerity, I care about what other people think. I’m not a novelist because I like working with people.”

And how does her grandmother, 96, feel about her onstage doppelganger?

“She’s been a great sport,” says Herzog. “She’s talked about it as a strange out-of-body experience.”

“4000 Miles,”
through Feb. 10 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. www.act-sf.org or (415) 749-2228

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.