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From the complexity of 4000 Miles to the beauty of Barrymore 

Cooling down in the Big Apple

Now that The Flick has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, it has become obvious that the prize committee devoutly believes we should admire comedy dramas that are lengthy, episodic, ponderously slow, devoid of eloquence and only obliquely meaningful. That would explain why Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles was merely nominated for the 2013 Pulitzer. Unlike Annie Baker's victorious candidate, Herzog's comedy, now premiering at UpStage in a ThreeBone Theatre production, can only claim to be episodic and oblique.

Hooray. Herzog's concision and her occasional lapses into eloquence will make this a better play for most people. At heart, what happens between Leo and his grandmother, Vera, is a study of family relations, coping with loss, and moving beyond past mistakes and regrets.

Leo is the bike rider who drops in on Grandma's Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night — after pedaling across the country from the coast of California. He even dipped his back wheel in the Pacific before setting off. So the friction and the comedy to follow are not merely fallout from a clash of generational values. We often detour into contrasts between Left Coast mellow vs. Right Coast paranoid.

Yet for a time, they need each other. Despite her paranoid vulnerability and her Miss Daisy-like suspicions of anyone sharing her space, Vera is lonely, virtually the last of her nonagenarian set. The death of her across-the-hall neighbor, even if she was a pain in the ass, exacerbates her solitariness. Leo is ambivalent about bunking with Grandma, resentful of her suspicions, her prying, and her advising. He is quickly disabused of the idea that he might just park his bike and pitch his tent somewhere in the vicinity, and it soon becomes apparent that Grandma's is a good place to lick his wounds, vent his sorrows, and heal his soul.

Complex characterizations are clearly Herzog's strong suit. Attempts at contrivance aren't quite so good. Skipping over the why and how she finds him across an entire continent, the girlfriend who has spurned him, Bec, drops in on Leo twice, another portrait of ambivalence. She either wants Leo to persuade her that her reason for dropping him is weak and unfounded, or she merely wishes for him to beg for forgiveness so she can get extra satisfaction from rejecting him.

Not knowing how they were when they were good, I found it hard to read Leo's attitude. He could be seeing through her, tired of the drama, unready to commit, or just still numb from his experience on the road, where he lost his best friend. In between the two meetings, he comes home one night with a casual pickup, Amanda, an indication that, in his mind, the split with Bec is irreparable.

Quite frankly, I enjoyed the ambiguities, the uncertainties, and the meandering of 4000 Miles, all of which seem to be part of Herzog's intent. If she were interested in exactitude, she would have named her work 3000 Miles, for that's far closer to what you actually put on your odometer when you cross the USA.

ThreeBone director Sarah Provencal makes no attempt to simplify what we see. She and set designer Heather Bucsh give us extra things to puzzle over. Instead of a doorway to Vera's apartment, we see two pillars of books, one of them outfitted with a doorknob and a lock. These may represent the words that Vera has so much difficulty finding when she tries to communicate with Leo, the piles of words that she has lost. Provencal's colorblind casting sparks less fruitful pondering: you'll bypass confusion if you know that beforehand, since there is an instance of adoption in the family tree.

Even before that confusion was dispelled, I was delighted with the cast. Vera's struggles with language often turn her dialogue into ultra-Mamet assaults on coherence, yet Marilyn Carter not only finds a through-line across the treacherous terrain, she often finds beauty and poetry in the 91-year-old's flickering mind. Of course, there's plenty of resilience and crustiness mixed into Vera's vulnerability, but there are also moments when she can turn back the clock with her memories, and the scene sprinkled with mindless laughter is pure gold.

Keon Wilson never seems awed by Carter's virtuosity as Leo, never thrown off by her stumbling cadences, which could have wreaked havoc with cue pickup. All through the show, a basic sunniness peeps out of Leo's disposition that is credibly Western, no matter how many troubles and conflicts are crowding in on him. Grandma, an unrepentant Marxist, isn't a lightweight, so it's important that Wilson doesn't go overboard on his mellowness.

Sarah Ruth Diener's local debut as Bec is nearly as impressive. By paralleling Vera's differences with Leo, Bec allows us to takes a more nuanced view of her discarded boyfriend, for it isn't merely his age that sets him apart — he's a freer spirit and, right or wrong, Bec is making him pay a price. Sydney Quach is another talent to watch as Amanda, perfectly calibrating her tipsiness and realizing that her job is to not understand what she's walking into.

The most learned professor I ever encountered in grad school once said that he rejoiced whenever he heard of a student who had broken with his family. There's something to be said for the opposite point of view, and Herzog is saying it with exquisite subtlety and objectivity.

It takes a whole lotta ham to excel as Hamlet, but when you're the most acclaimed Hamlet of your generation — with looks that made the women swoon — ham becomes tempered with conceit and peppered with a host of colorful war stories. So it's not surprising that playwright William Luce chose John Barrymore as a subject. What may seem strange is that he only got around to Barrymore after he had already written shows about Emily Dickenson, Charlotte Bronte, Zelda Fitzgerald and Lillian Hellman.

Luce made some wily choices when he presented the Great Profile in 1997. He introduced Barrymore to us in old age, when it doesn't require actors with dazzling looks to portray him — and when his memory bank is brimful of juicy anecdotes. After writing nothing but one-woman shows for the stage, Luce adds a second character who serves to discreetly underscore Barrymore's alcoholic decrepitude.

Catawba College professor Kurt Corriher looks more like Ronald Colman or John Forsythe to me in the current Warehouse production up in Cornelius, but he certainly delivers on all the extra demands that Luce fiendishly packs into this script. He's arrogant, woozy, bitter, hallucinatory, charming, and ribald by turns, but he also dives magnificently into some Shakespeare monologues — primarily from Hamlet — in between bouts of desperately trying to remember lines from Richard III.

That's where Caleb Garner comes in, as Barrymore's Prompter in a production of Richard III designed to revive the actor's career. Barrymore would rather guzzle booze or tell us about his famous family, his marriages, and his celebrated career, so it's difficult for the Prompter to keep him on track. Sequences where Barrymore wrestles with his memory, needs the Prompter, doesn't want his help and rages against him gradually become more dramatic than the monologues. He's in a desperate struggle for his life — and his sanity.

Beautifully directed by Craig Kolkebeck, the naturalness of Garner's performance puts me in mind of the accompanist in Master Class, written by Terence McNally just two years before Barrymore. The pure corrupt deviltry of Corriher, on the other hand, reminds me of the stage version of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, a project for the prof to consider.

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