Touching, thought-provoking ‘4000 Miles’ caps NJT’s 20th season

Eric Woolsey
Chris Tipp and Amy Loui in the NJT production of ‘4000 Miles.’ Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Generations of American Jews brought up on a steady diet of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hester Street” often idealize their grandparents’ backgrounds as Jewish versions of plaster saints: Orthodox, shtetl-born and eager to assimilate into the goldine medina (golden land) of the United States. 

But there is an often-overlooked substratum of early 20th century American Jews: those who were nonreligious and militantly secularist, active in various leftist movements,   revolutionaries who wanted to transform America into a socialist paradise through the ballot box (socialists) or an armed struggle (communists and anarchists).

Amy Herzog, a prize-winning playwright, brings the radically progressive strain of early American Jewry to vivid life. In “4000 Miles,” she focuses on the deepening relationship between Vera Joseph, the 91-year-old widow of two fellow-communist husbands, and her 21-year-old grandson Leo.

Leo is a physically fit retro hippie circa 2007 who has just suffered the loss of his best friend in a freak biking accident while on a cross-country trip. Leo also is in the process of breaking up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Bec.


In the New Jewish Theatre production that closes the company’s 20th anniversary season, Amy Loui is spot-on perfect as Vera, who continues to live in her spacious, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment that has felt forlornly empty since the death of her husband, Joe, a bookish, party-line communist who always kept Vera updated on the communist take on the world situation.

Loui captures the Neil Simon-like sardonic sense of humor in Vera, who struggles to hear and see, who sometimes forgets to put in her dentures and whose speech is frustratingly challenged by a frequent inability to download certain key words.

Vera’s revolutionary spirit is very much alive as she rebels against the vagaries of old age. She plans her halting steps carefully so as not to fall, and when she encounters stupidity in phone conversations, she lets the stupid one know exactly how she feels. 

Equally well cast is Chris Tipp as Leo, an intelligent, likable but callow and unmotivated young man.  

As Vera and Leo reach across their generational and philosophical divides, they forge a strong connection that is quite visible on the set. In one hilarious scene, Leo and Vera get high with Leo’s stash of weed and share some much-needed euphoric laughter. 

Scenic designer Marissa Todd brings Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment, frozen in time since 1968, to pulsating and memory-filled life.

The small but important supporting cast enhances the play and allows it to “open out” from the static confines of the apartment. Rachel Fenton is highly believable as Bec, reflecting ambivalences over her relationship with Leo; they both fight their continued affection for one another in some wrenching dialogue.

Grace Langford is terrific as Amanda, a brash, sadistically flirtatious Chinese-American woman Leo picks up at a bar while nursing his wounds over his friend Micah’s death and his breakup with Bec. Amanda is a challenging, frenetic, shape-shifting role that Langford manages to nail.

Edward Coffield, who does a splendid job directing the 90-minute, one-act production, describes the work as taking place “over a few weeks in which nothing of importance happens,” but he adds that under the surface there are “moments of human connection and empathy.” 

In fact, the production notes almost too insistently describe “4000 Miles” as if it were a stage version of TV’s erstwhile “Seinfeld,”a show in which “nothing happens.”

In truth, a lot of importance does happen in those few autumn weeks depicted in “4000 Miles.” Vera comes to terms with her own mortality. Both she and Leo must struggle with the death of close friends and manage to provide essential comfort to one another despite their considerable generational, physical and emotional differences. 

There may not be a lot of broad action in “4000 Miles,” but by the end we have come to know and appreciate these characters and their humanness.