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4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre: Theater review

A young man takes refuge in his aged grandmother's Manhattan apartment in Amy Herzog's delicate, truthful character study.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Josh Salt and Mary Ann Thebus in 4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Josh Salt and Mary Ann Thebus in4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Caroline Neff and Josh Salt in 4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Emjoy Gavino and Josh Salt in 4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Josh Salt and Caroline Neff in 4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Mary Ann Thebus and Josh Salt in 4000 Miles at Northlight Theatre

You've likely known a Leo Joseph-Connell. And it's likely you couldn't stand him. As sharply illustrated in Amy Herzog's rich, small-scale 2011 work, Leo is a very recognizable type of modern 21-year-old: a privileged-progressive rich kid, the kind who refuses the offer of a banana out of responsibility for its carbon footprint, but refuses to take responsibility for his effect on the emotions of those who love him. Leo prides himself on his anti-consumerism in not owning a cell phone, yet thinks nothing of asking his 91-year-old grandmother to spot him 50 bucks to go to a rock-climbing gym.

Leo arrives at the door of grandma Vera's rent-controlled Manhattan apartment in the show's first scene, having completed a cross-country bicycle trip. We learn that he's been out of touch with his frantic family for weeks, and that he went off the grid after suffering a trauma; he began the trip in Seattle with a best friend he seems to have idolized, but he's arrived at his destination alone.

Vera is a character you may recognize—even more literally than Leo. She also appeared in Herzog's After the Revolution, which was seen last year in a production at Next Theatre that was also helmed by 4000 Miles director Kimberly Senior, and there, as here, Vera was portrayed as a charming, fading spitfire by the delicious Mary Ann Thebus.

Herzog has acknowledged the character is based on her own grandmother, a fiery old-left Manhattan Marxist, but Vera's politics are less explicitly germane here than in Revolution. Her positions and passions, which age is making harder for her to articulate, serve more as a poignant counterpoint to her grandson's flailing, wounding attempts to define his own.

Yet for all of Leo's repugnant self-righteousness and blithe disregard for his ability to injure, Herzog doesn't sit in judgment of his behavior. Like the playwright, Josh Salt does a remarkable job of capturing his character's casual cruelty while still letting Leo's barely-hidden terror and sorrow show through enough to make us want better for him. There's satisfaction when Thebus finally responds to another piece of his "new-age baloney," telling him "you should listen to yourself once in a while because you sound stupid, you really do." But like Leo's mother is bound to say once he finally gives in and gives her a call, we're not angry with him, just disappointed.

There are no wrenching plot twists nor oversold sentimentality in Herzog's and Senior's delicate sketchwork, which also encompasses brief but lovely turns by Caroline Neff and Emjoy Gavino as two very different love interests for Leo. It never feels like we're being manipulated or that the playwright is pushing buttons; even a scene that sounds on paper like an easy joke—Leo and Granny get high together—comes across as organic and earned. There are no big lessons in 4000 Miles, just honest and moving portrayals of learning and growing.