Put together two people from opposite ends of a spectrum, and first you see their differences. Give them a reason to stay together, and eventually their similarities emerge to produce a full portrait.
This is playwright Amy Herzog’s technique in the warm, rich comedy 4000 Miles. She separates a grandson and grandmother by 70 years, then lets him end a Seattle-to-New York City bike trip with a spontaneous 3 a.m. visit to her Manhattan apartment. What begins as an overnight stay quietly extends into weeks as Leo and Vera build an understated companionship.
They have a lot in common, including two manifestly childlike dispositions. At Vera’s age, there’s no longer any need to fuss over what other people think, so why not plunge to the heart of the matter? To Leo, life is an adventure best accepted with cheer and wonder. But they have some darker parallels, too. Both have reasons to think about mortality. Both are drifting, and neither is in any hurry to find out what comes next. For Vera, it will be her life’s end; for Leo, it will be the start of his, but having every possibility open is more comfortable than choosing one. And in the present, Leo is trapped in an orbit around a departing girlfriend, while Vera hasn’t gotten around to taking her husband’s name off the doorplate 10 years after his death. Both of them are stuck in place.
In a high-voltage drama, the two of them would unstick each other, probably with a great deal of soul-scouring emotion. That’s not what 4000 Miles accomplishes, because Herzog’s abundant talent lies in sounding the delicate emotional truths underneath small events. The plot consists of an intersection, not a transformation.
Herzog’s low-key character study, with its perfect mix of funny and sad, needs talented actors. In Vermont Stage Company’s production, the skill is there, but the delicate chemistry between Leo and Vera is not. Chemistry takes some luck and grace, and director Michael Dove comes just shy of cultivating it.
The two lead actors are both fine talents. Tall and dark-haired Willy McKay, as Leo, has great presence, strong vocal ability and lovely comic timing. He’s alive and loose, showing his character’s earnest youthfulness with a rubbery bounce in his step and the occasional wide grin on his face. In a monologue about losing his best friend, McKay’s natural ease lets the story spin out. We feel we’re in the living room with him, rapt.
Herzog writes with attention to the type of details that wedge themselves into memory, turning an abstract story into experience. McKay weaves the humor and sadness through the story by letting it happen to him. Actors give audiences no greater gift.
Waltrudis Buck gives Vera an exhilarating lack of self-consciousness. If age has its privileges, one of them is being outspoken without fear of consequences. Petite and white-haired Buck brings some smart details to playing a 91-year-old, including a pace that’s far from the snappy banter typical of comedy. Buck makes Vera ring true: Small physical afflictions slow her down, and she has to take time to find her words — the worst part about getting old, she says. Through it all, though, Vera’s hearty spirit gleams through. Her levelheaded approach to aging includes a refusal to shrink into the background and a hilarious ability to skewer the tedious neighbor who checks in on her with verbal barbs.
The two characters need to grow close without a sudden, galvanizing event. McKay and Buck bring great energy and life to their roles. It’s craftsmanship that connects them, not that ineffable bond that two actors sometimes share. Still, there are glorious moments between them. One night, as they start sharing stories, Leo loses all shyness about topics that one would never broach with a grandmother. And so does Vera, to great comic effect.
In other interactions, the two actors seem to be rowing two separate boats. But the delights of the script and the charm of the characters deflect attention from this limitation.
Two smaller roles round out the cast. Katie Peters has a fast-talking, scene-stealing turn as Amanda, a girl Leo picks up. Peters takes it a bit over the top, but the scene is written with such broad comedy in mind that it almost feels like a different play, and Peters brings out every hilarious morsel. We forgive her, and we can’t stop laughing as she stalks about on platform heels trying to puzzle through each awkward step of a seduction to which she may or may not surrender.
Andrea Underhill plays Bec, Leo’s ex-girlfriend. Like Vera and Leo, she’s not entirely sure of the next step in her life, but she’s courageous enough to make some choices. Underhill is good at showing the little tremors beneath Bec’s brave face, but she doesn’t really connect with McKay or Buck. And, particularly when she reverses course and seems interested in Leo again, it’s unclear what purpose Herzog intends for this character.
There’s another obstacle at play here. Set designer Jeff Modereger creatively realizes a Manhattan apartment with detailed decoration, but leaves an awkwardly large, open area bereft of furniture. The long, deep diagonals don’t suit quiet conversation or support the subtle connections between characters.
Dove calls on sound designer Martha Goode and lighting designer Lauren Glover to create a passage-of-time gimmick. On its first appearance, the revolving light and bits of music, each turn representing another day, seem clever. But the slow crawl appears far too many times. Inexplicably, Goode has chosen five-second snippets of folk-pop music from the 1960s and ’70s. Yet Vera’s formative years would have been set to the music of the ’30s and ’40s, while mellow Leo is likely into Mumford & Sons, if not the Grateful Dead. The name-that-tune interlude is distracting at best.
These concerns aside, Herzog’s dialogue is rich, funny and so authentic to today’s idioms and vocal rhythms that watching 4000 Miles is like finding ourselves in overheard stories. The observations are a lovely combination of funny and true. And, though the play lacks a vivid event that transforms the characters, it’s all the more real without it.
"4000 Miles" by Amy Herzog, directed by Michael Dove, produced by Vermont Stage Company. Through March 31. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., at FlynnSpace, Burlington. $24.30-32.50. Info, 863-5966. flynntix.org