4000 Miles

Nicola Cavendish as Vera Credit: David Cooper
Nicola Cavendish as Vera
Credit: David Cooper

At The Stanley until October 12, 2014

Posted September 19, 2014

A good reason for mounting 4000 Miles, written by award-winning American playwright Amy Herzog in 2011, is that it gets actor Nicola Cavendish back on the boards after three years. Vera, a crusty old 91-year-old grandmother with a sharp tongue but a soft heart, is a role tailor-made for Cavendish (who plays old and crotchety but is actually only in her early 60s).

When Vera’s troubled 21-year-old grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) turns up with his bike at his grandmother’s Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night, she takes him in but not without asking him pointblank if he’s high and letting him know he smells terrible. Feisty old lady is something Cavendish does so well and she embellishes Herzog’s script with her own bits of business like viciously kicking Leo’s casually dropped belongings messing up her tidy living room.

Vera is still very sharp but, as she puts it, “I’m losing my words”. “Whatchamacallit” is a word she hasn’t lost and Leo is often called upon to fill in the blanks. On opening night it appeared Cavendish herself slipped up and said to Leo, “Your father never did anything for me in bed”, at which point Barrett corrected her, “You mean my grandfather?” Maybe it’s in the script but it made for a very funny moment that Cavendish and Barrett seemed to enjoy as much as we did.

Nathan Barrett and Nicola Cavendish Credit: David Cooper
Nathan Barrett and Nicola Cavendish
Credit: David Cooper

Born and raised in Vancouver, Nathan Barrett has spent the last six years in Toronto and Montreal but is back in town for good. Many actors would kill to play opposite Cavendish. Leo, however, is not very likeable: he’s been drifting, has a troubled relationship with his mother – which we’d like to hear more about but don’t; has a difficult relationship with his girlfriend Bec (very capable Ella Simon in an unrewarding role) – and we’re not sure what his problem is; and he patronizes his grandmother whom we’ve come to adore with New Age-y stuff like, “You’ve got the power. Take it back” or advising her to, “Love and trust. You get that back” as if Vera hasn’t been doing that for decades. And, with her permission, he helps himself to the money she keeps stashed in the guest room. I think we’re supposed to excuse him as a deeply distressed young man but when we find out the source of some of his unhappiness, it feels insufficient.

Indeed, the play feels insufficient. The territory is so rich but Herzog skims the surface. And while one New York reviewer called it a “finely wrought play”, the inner workings are apparent and frustrating; playwright Herzog feeds us tidbits of information about Leo’s friend Micah until all is finally revealed. There’s also a sexual incident referred to between Leo and his Chinese adopted sister that goes nowhere. The best thing that can be said about the reference is that it brings Amanda, a Chinese-American bimbo, briefly into the story.

Nathan Barrett and Agnes Tong Credit: David C
Nathan Barrett and Agnes Tong
Credit: David Cooper

As Amanda, Agnes Tong is hilarious: she staggers on too-high heels, she falls on her face, she’s the epitome of, like, young woman flakiness. It’s a terrific performance but serves only a couple of plot points: Leo has no reservations about having sex with someone so drunk she can barely walk. And perhaps he’s attracted to her because he really lusts after his sister? The best part of this scene is that Vera, when she shuffles into the living room and discover them tearing their clothes off, doesn’t give a fig. “You could choose not to be closed minded”, Leo has earlier advised his old grannie. Closed-minded? Vera? Not this old nonagenarian.

Directed by Roy Surette, 4000 Miles is heartwarming, darkly funny and a fantastic vehicle for Nicola Cavendish. But take Cavendish out of the mix and what’s left is a decent movie of the week and another piece of American realism.