Profile: Amy Herzog
The author of 4000 Miles once again mines her family history.
Tue May 31 2011
Photograph: Courtesy Amy Herzog
Writers can be cagey when discussing the real-life inspiration behind their fiction, but Amy Herzog unapologetically cites her extended Marxist family as source material for two plays that hit New York in the past nine months. After the Revolution, Herzog's first full-length Off Broadway work, earned her acclaim last fall at Playwrights Horizons. Now comes 4000 Miles, produced by Lincoln Center's emerging-artist arm, LCT3. The crossover character in these two works is Vera Joseph, a spunky granny and dedicated Communist based on Herzog's own grandmother, Leepee. (Leepee's first husband, and Herzog's biological grandfather, was songwriter Arthur Herzog Jr., who cowrote the Billie Holiday standard "God Bless the Child.")
In After the Revolution, Vera (played by Lois Smith) is a recent widow, faced with a disillusioned granddaughter who'd just learned that the blacklisted grandfather she'd worshipped had spied for the Soviets. 4000 Miles places Vera—now 91 and embodied by Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson—in her Greenwich Village apartment ten years later, as her twentyish grandson, Leo (Gabriel Ebert), arrives not-so-fresh from a cross-country bike trip, mourning the loss of a close friend and longing to reconnect with his estranged girlfriend. Herzog based Leo, a latter-day hippie, on a cousin who lost a good friend at a young age, and even the character's onstage bicycle has biographical origins. It's the one Herzog rode from New Haven to San Francisco on a Habitat for Humanity fund-raiser after she completed her undergraduate degree at Yale in 2000.
The playwright, 32, also a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, finds unexpected depth in the conflict and camaraderie that exist between relations at different points in their lives—scenarios that in lesser hands could spell run-of-the-mill family drama. When it's a family with a political legacy, that conflict can be something as simple as Leo not accepting Vera's offer of a banana because it's not locally grown produce. Political differences in Herzog's onstage and offstage worlds aren't between Republicans and Democrats; they're within concentric circles of serious leftists, and they're not always minuscule. "There's a huge rift in my family between the socialists and the Communists," the writer says matter-of-factly after a rehearsal at Lincoln Center. But what won over LCT3 artistic director Paige Evans was the intergenerational interplay as Vera and Leo cope with longing and loss. "This is an intelligent play of ideas with very complicated, rich relationships," Evans says. "Amy's writing is subtle and surprising. Both of the characters can be quite harsh—but they're emotionally true."
Herzog credits her nonagenarian grandmother with helping make Vera come alive. "I'm so lucky to be an adult person with a living grandmother who is very much a part of my life—and who's not grandmotherly," Herzog says. "I interact with her in a complicated way, like I interact with people of my own generation." Earlier that day, Leepee had called to tell Herzog about an article in The Nation that she thought she should read (and which she would save until her granddaughter could come pick it up).
The Josephs in Herzog's plays are also partly based on her father's stepfamily, who will be visiting New York for 4000 Miles, as they did for After the Revolution, which prompted candid postshow conversation. "They certainly had reservations about the play," Herzog acknowledges. "Luckily, they were excited to have a dialogue with me about it instead of getting angry. They were happy to say, 'I don't like this part,' instead of taking it personally or feeling accused."
As Herzog works on future projects—the play Belleville (premiering at Yale Rep this fall), a Steppenwolf Theatre commission and a rom-com screenplay for Castle Rock—one place her onstage and offstage worlds won't collide is with her new husband, in-demand stage director Sam Gold. They have no plans to work together. "We figure we have a pretty thorough collaboration going on—interior decoration, maybe kids one day," reflects Herzog, who lives in Brooklyn. "All the couples we've talked to who have worked together either say, 'Absolutely do not do it,' or, 'It was okay for us, but I would say don't do it.' But we're very involved in each other's work, so in a way, we're constantly working together."
Beyond 4000 Miles, Herzog thinks she may have one more play about the Josephs in her. And although she toyed with setting one in the 1950s, she now feels a third play should maintain the contemporary setting. "I'm interested in those moments of examination that, by necessity, come later," she says. "I really don't know anyone who is present and thoughtful going through their whole lives, and the things that we inherit from our families are the things that we really question."
is at the Duke on 42nd Street through July 2.