Amy Herzog

Across the Great Divide

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is a straightforward family drama, full of a natural empathy for its two main characters, a widow in her 90s and her grandson, a twenty-something newly arrived in New York City after biking all the way from Seattle. After his awkward welcome—he arrives in the wee hours while his grandmother is asleep and she first greets him without her dentures in—Leo settles into life with Vera and both, by play’s end, have come to terms or are coming to terms with change in other relationships in their lives. Key to the play’s charm is its ability to handle relationships with a feel for the complex arrangements of attraction and antagonism that work under the surface between friends and between kin. Herzog is not afraid to make her characters less than admirable at times, but they never wear out their welcome.

One often hears about whether or not male authors can “write women characters”; much less often do we hear about whether female authors can “write men.” Herzog can. Her Leo Joseph-Connell (Micah Stock) has the kind of intense self-regard with efforts at humility and companionability that are hallmarks of the well-intentioned male of his day. Micah Stock plays Leo with the kinds of hesitations and measured responses that speak of the thoughtful male who feels his thoughts should be of general interest. It’s a great, understated performance. Much in this play requires a delicate touch: if the humor is too broad or the characters too stiff, the effect of its natural sympathy will suffer. Eric Ting’s successful rendering of this popular play makes the most of the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust amphitheater to bring us into this home and make us comfortable.

As Vera Joseph, Leo’s welcoming but settled grandma, Zoaunne LeRoy has to provide much of the play’s ultimate feeling. Hard of hearing, hard-headed in some things (such as her judgments on her neighbor and her insistence that Leo’s girlfriend Bec is too plump), at times grasping for the right word, her hands fluttering and gesturing, at times wobbly or wearily surfing her memory banks, at times giddy and a bit girlish, Vera is a subtly written character and LeRoy makes her real. She’s not some generic old lady or someone’s warm or prickly granny. Vera feels like an actual person, with a rather complicated past. A communist, Vera has come through her life with definite principles, the kind that don’t exactly earn her respect from her children’s generation, having to make do with an accepting “Marx is cool” from her grandson. Ting and his cast let silences allow us to imagine the sorts of things Vera might’ve said to her grandson were she younger and the ideas from her long-deceased husband’s lectures fresher in her mind.

As it is, the two find agreeable moments of togetherness—sharing a bowl on the autumn equinox and approaching a level of frankness that, while it happens often enough in plays, here feels merited and plausible. Likewise are Leo’s confrontations with Bec (Leah Karpel), a woman who Herzog shrewdly presents as someone trying to get on with her life without incurring the debts and obligations that a young man’s desires and affections can heap on a young woman. Herzog lets Leo have some of the higher moral ground as he’s still to some degree in shock about and certainly still grieving the bizarre accidental death of his best friend, Micah. A friend that, he feels, Bec praises overmuch. These arguments have the vivid feeling of ongoing discussions in medias res, where we quickly size up the levels of investment that are there to be wounded or repudiated. Most of the scenes in the play take place on the couch, the lack of action requiring that they be very well-written and staged with an easy pacing that is essential to the inviting tone of 4000 Miles.

One possible off-note is Leo’s ill-advised dalliance with Amanda (Teresa Avia Lim), a young Asian-American student from Parsons, an artsy, mostly inebriated character whose mood swings are comical enough as we watch Leo become sympathetic, seductive, chummy, and bored by turns, but one feels that Herzog baulks at creating a caricature for the sake of a laugh (drunk “sluts” are people too), though Amanda’s most pressing reason for being in the play is comic relief (though she’s a little abashed that she doesn’t provide any other relief for such a sweet “mountain man”). The scene isn’t a complete loss: Amanda’s outrage at Vera’s communist allegiances is almost worth the rather pat entry of Vera at exactly the wrong moment, consummation-wise, and the more interesting reason for Amanda’s presence—Leo’s perhaps not solely platonic infatuation with his adopted Chinese sister, Lily—helps to make the scene, as they say, motivated.

The discords of that scene are instructive because they put into relief the fact that, by the time they are preparing a speech for the funeral of Vera’s never seen but intrusive neighbor, Leo and Vera have arrived at the complementarity of real friendship. Vera’s hands waving as she does not speak to say her piece when Bec and Leo part amicably is worth volumes. LeRoy carries the weight of years on Vera well, letting us feel those years when they impart wisdom and resignation as well as frailty and comic lapses. Her dignity in the role does the play proud.

As does Frank J. Alberino’s lived-in looking set, with its couch center-stage, its front door upstage, and its wings for kitchen areas and walk-throughs to the bedrooms, and Matt Frey’s lighting which lets us feel the way daylight and nighttime make moods in even the most familiar spaces. Meanwhile, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes let us register the effectiveness of seeing characters—initially in grimy bikerwear and nightgown, respectively—dressed up and presentable at the play’s close. In its relaxed and unsentimental grasp of these characters and the play's wry humor, The Long Wharf’s 4000 Miles comes close to perfection.

4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank J. Alberino; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19-March 16, 2014

Herzog Back in New Haven

Tomorrow night at the Long Wharf Theatre, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles begins previews, with its official opening next Wednesday, February 26th. Herzog, a graduate of of the Yale School of Drama and Yale College, debuted her play Belleville at the Yale Rep in 2011. Now, the well-respected slightly earlier play 4000 Miles, directed by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, gets its chance in New Haven. Produced at Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program in 2011, the play won an OBIE Award in 2012 for Best New American Play and was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. The story of an inter-generational odd couple, of sorts, the play depicts the bonds and frictions between Leo, a twenty-one-year-old man, and Vera, his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. That difference in age means that, though family, the two characters have rather different assumptions about the world they live in. Leo has come to New York City, biking 4000 miles cross-country from Seattle to reconnect with Bec, a girl who may be through with him, and is grieving after a friend’s unexpected death, and Vera happens to have some space he can use.

To Herzog, it’s a bit surprising that the play has become so popular in regional theater—besides going up at the Long Wharf, 4000 Miles is currently being staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as well. “It has little plot and is mainly a dialogue-based character piece,” Herzog says, but those qualities may be part of what makes it so popular. Given that character studies are a major interest of theater, a story that brings together different generations in a meaningful way seems tailor-made for regional theater, where the majority of patrons have seen more than a few decades of life and where, as in New Haven, younger theater-goers are apt to be involved in theater themselves.  Set in 2007, 4000 Miles features a character based on a cousin several years younger than Herzog when she wrote the play—Leo's at an age when many are trying to decide their direction in life and what kind of life makes sense to them. Encountering a much older family member with very definite views on the world sets up many opportunities for the characters to reveal and discover things about themselves in small but significant ways. And that tends to make for fascinating theater.

Writing the play, for Herzog, was an effort to pay tribute to her own grandmother, who saw the play more than once, calling it “an eerie out of body experience” to see a character on-stage “lifted from her own stories.” Both Vera and Herzog’s grandmother share a past as communists in the post-World War II era, a time when persons of their political persuasion suffered much “red-baiting” and, when possible, prosecution. While a character like Vera is “necessarily engaged with political questions,” Herzog is uncertain that a domestic drama like 4000 Miles can really be called “political,” as some critics have done. With her own grandmother in mind, Herzog suggests that 4000 Miles and her earlier play After the Revolution “may have gained a political reputation unfairly.” Vera, a character in both plays, espouses communism, while her husband, recently deceased in the earlier play, was blacklisted and an actual Soviet spy. Yet Herzog questions whether her own grandmother’s stress on the importance of political art is met by her granddaughter’s plays. Herzog prefers to avoid “art with a sole message,” and rather considers her plays to be about characters with political views than plays with a particular political agenda. Her grandmother, on the other hand, felt that “art should have a political message.”

Thus part of the interest in the play is in how the values of Vera look to someone who has had none of her experiences—of the Depression, of the Second World War, of communist China, of McCarthyism, of the Vietnam War, of being devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. For Leo’s generation, born in the mid-Eighties, Leftist sympathies are more likely to take the form of Green environmental issues and concerns with the global economy and its products, or perhaps with sexual freedoms and racial injustice. The play is not so much about a clash of ideologies as it is an observation about how different political climates create different kinds of responses in different generations. More to the point for Herzog, in terms of the play’s dynamics, is the theme of loss, as Leo “faces his first experience of real grief and finds questions about his life to look into.” Herzog intends her play, a comic drama, to be faithful to the kinds of interactions that can occur naturally but meaningfully between relatives thrown together by happenstance.

The other autobiographical feature of the play is that Herzog biked cross-country herself, right after graduation from Yale College in 2000, though, unlike Leo, east to west. While none of her experiences are directly incorporated in the play, she mentions a 4th of July celebration in a tiny town in Kansas that left an impression on her—a resident of the northeast all her life—in showing her a bit of small-town America at a time that was, in many ways, a turning-point in recent history.

With a sense of the vast area—4000 miles—that separates the coasts of our country—and the stretch of time—70 years—that separate the births of Vera and Leo, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, contained in one room, offers viewers a chance to stake stock of their own sense of what separates us and joins us as inter-generational Americans.


4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19 - March 16, 2014

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.


Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.


Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT


The Way We Were

Watching Amy Herzog’s Belleville is an exercise in having your worst fears about people confirmed. The play offers a fascinating interplay between two narrative arcs: the spiralling down of what might be perceived as a romantic comedy, dressed up with dramatic overtones, and the raising of sinister tensions that, like the denouement of an Ibsen play, lay waste to the comfortable world we began with. The second play of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2011-12 Season and a World Premiere, Belleville is a triumph of slowburn technique. It’s the kind of play that, with only four characters, one set and no intermission, provides all its thrills and brilliance by simply placing its characters before us and letting us see them squirm and prevaricate and plead and joke and couple and coo and become gradually, relentlessly unhinged and desperate. The effect is exhilerating, an entertaining skirting of the abyss where the pursuit of normality turns deadly.

Disrupted from our failsafe positions, the play asks, how do we act? In human relations, we might say, rationality is only skin deep, the rest is pathology.

Abby (Maria Dizzia), a somewhat spoiled daddy’s girl, is going to be away from home at Christmas for the first time. That might not be such a big deal, but her sister’s about to have a baby and their mother died not too long ago. She’s in Paris—the “diverse” (though she’s self-conscious about using the word) section from which the play takes its title—offering wifely support to her new husband Zack (Greg Keller), a recent Johns Hopkins Med School grad doing important work on AIDS. Abby is still at the stage where she proudly shows off the wedding album (“I was really happy that day”) and attempts to put a good face on the little gaffes of cohabitation—like walking in on Zack masturbating to porn when he should be at work.

Herzog establishes early a grasp of how newlyweds, away from everyone they know and barely sure they know each other in this new context, have much to grapple with in every exchange—over what to wear, and where to go, and how to placate Abby’s father’s expectations and how to meet the demands of Zack’s job while maintaining a fun, lovers-abroad feeling. Fortunately, the landlord Alioune (Gilbert Owuor) is a personable guy willing to eat Christmas cookies though a Muslim, look at Abby’s photo album, and share a companionable bowl with Zack. Then again, friendship in such cases only goes so far when the rent’s overdue.

Pull on a strand and watch the unfinished tapestry of this young couple’s efforts at married life come unraveled. Anne Kauffman’s production is strong in the subtle touches that keep us guessing at what’s behind certain actions and comments, and in providing the punch of dramatic moments that shatter the congenial tone. The interplay and body language between the two principle characters is particularly effective when they grope for an intimacy they’re having a hard time finding.

Maria Dizzia’s role is complex: Abby is girlish, brittle, vulnerable, wounding, hysterical by turns. A spoiled spoiler but also a centerpiece, the raison d’être of Zack’s world, she is the engine that makes Belleville run. Herzog vents a bit on Abby’s inadequacies, but she also extends understanding to her when necessary.

As Zack, Greg Keller has the most difficult role. We have to like him, but not too much. He plays the ingratiating side of such a character perfectly—we’ve all met someone like him. And when things take a turn for the worse, we realize, with a growing chill and unease, that we truly don’t know what he’s capable of.

As landlord Alioune, Gilbert Owuor seems a bit more wooden than is necessary; understandably aloof, a landlord put in the position of being a friend, his character as played is hard to read. Herzog shows us that male bonding is often built upon deceiving women together, but Owuor could give us a bit more interest in Alioune as Zack’s foil.

As Alioune’s wife Amina, Pascale Armand makes the most of her three brief scenes. Her role is key in showing us a major difference between Abby and Zack and Alioune and Amina. We could reduce it to a cultural difference—the role of the “traditional wife” versus the contemporary version Abby manifests—but more to the point is the strength of character—demanding as it is—of Amina, a woman who, we grasp immediately, has no illusions and little patience for the self-delusions of others. Her presence is an immediate reality check.

A sprawling space with certain important areas we can’t see, the set by Julia C. Lee is an apartment just a bit seedy that, with its interesting ceiling slopes and skylights, its attractive windows and comfortable, lived-in look, presents the perfect locale for a slumming up-and-coming couple. And it is a repeated pleasure watching what different times of day, via Nina Hyun Seung Lee’s lighting, do with the place.

Commissioned by Yale Rep and developed through the Yale Center for New Theatre, Belleville is Amy Herzog’s Yale Rep debut. New Haven is fortunate to get in on the early work of this talented playwright, and she's at work on a newly commissioned play for the Rep.

A convincing study of the uncertainties beneath the identities we construct, Belleville is certainly worth a visit.

Belleville Written by Amy Herzog Directed by Anne Kauffman Yale Repertory Theatre October 21 to November 12, 2011

Theater News

New Haven is a great town for theater.  If you have any doubts on that score, check out the following:

Thursday, 10/20 till Saturday, 10/22, The Yale Cabaret offers a student-generated theater piece, Creation 2011, that asks its performers to revisit and re-enact events or experiences that inspired their desire to work in theater.  Co-Artistic Director Michael Place assures us the show will be "sweet and engaging on a personal level," but will also entertainingly visit some tropes of academia--certainly we can all recognize the inherent comedy of a powerpoint presentation.  Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven.

Arts Council Award-Winning local theater group Broken Umbrella debuts its first play of the season this weekend, Friday, 10/21 through Sunday, 10/23,  with Play with Matches, developed by the company with playwright Jason Patrick Wells and director Ian Alderman, the play "tells the story of quirky New Haven inventor Ebenezer Beecher" (euphonious name!), who developed matches at a factory that once stood where Westville's Mitchell Library now stands.   The show continues for the next two weekends: 10/28-10/30 and 11/4-11/6.  Tickets on sale now for all shows.  Broken Umbrella.  The Smokestack, 446A Blake Street, New Haven.

New Haven Theater Company, another local conclave of thespians, is now selling tickets to its second show of the season, Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, set in Dublin and featuring a card game that may cost someone his soul.  NHTC’s Talk Radio was a strong showing this fall, and this show, directed by Hilary Brown, like the latter will feature the group's trademark ensemble acting.  11/10-12 and 11/17-19, 8 p.m., The New Haven Theater Company, 118 Court Street, New Haven.

At the Long Wharf, the Tony-Award-Winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ is getting up and running and purports to be a lively show, tickets on sale now for shows running from 10/26 to 11/20.  And, also at the Long Wharf, tickets have gone on sale this week for what should be a hot show: respected actor of stage and screen Brian Dennehy delivers the memory-ridden monologue of Samuel Beckett’s caustically funny and generally existential play Krapp’s Last Tape, which will run on Long Wharf's Stage II, 11/29 to 12/18.  Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Drive, New Haven.


And, at The Yale Repertory, the world premiere of new playwright Amy Herzog’s Belleville, about a contemporary Parisian couple newly immersed in 21st century malaise, begins previews on 10/21, with its official opening on the 27th.   The Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven.  And coming up shortly, 10/25-10/29, provocative YSD director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s thesis show: a rendering of Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, which should give us a memorable sense of how modernism plays a hundred years on.  Yale School of Drama, Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, New Haven. 



A great season is shaping up!  Check back for reviews of these shows as they open.    And for more theater news and reviews, check out Chris Arnott's site.