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Family Ties: An Interview with 4000 Miles Playwright Amy Herzog

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Family Ties: An Interview with 4000 Miles Playwright Amy Herzog

The most dramatic thing that happens in playwright Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles occurs at the beginning of the play. That’s when 21-year-old Leo, all grimy from a cross-country bike ride, arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the night at the door of his 91-year-old grandmother’s apartment in Greenwich Village. But with the series of incisive scenes that follow, both funny and moving, Herzog has written one of the best new plays of the season. She charts an unconventional intergenerational friendship between grandmother and grandson; Leo is dealing with the recent loss of his best friend in a biking accident while Vera is coping with the annoyances of getting old. Herzog’s writing is surefooted and quietly brilliant. She’s equally comfortable writing dialogue for characters that are more than half a century apart and suggests complex lives for even the supporting and off-stage characters. At 33, she has the grace and insights of a mature writer.

4000 Miles has been given an impeccably calibrated production at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (through June 17), directed by Daniel Aukin and featuring the Tony and Drama Desk award-winning actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Vera, the nonagenarian grandmother and Gabriel Ebert as her grandson. Wilson, best known for Grey Gardens and Full Gallop, and the relative newcomer Ebert give memorable performances providing perfect foil for each other; the production is also enhanced by Greta Lee and Zoë Winters in the supporting roles and by Lauren Helpern’s evocative set design.

Herzog first gained attention in New York in 2010 with After the Revolution, an epic, semi-autobiographical family drama which spans three generations of an American communist family in New York and Boston. Vera, the matriarch of family, is a recurring character in both After the Revolution and 4000 Miles. The House recently caught up with Herzog to chat about her work.

Is Vera based on your own grandmother?

Yes, she’s based quite directly on my real biological grandmother, who is 95 and lives still in Greenwich Village. Her name is Leepe; it’s an unusual name. She’s very sharp-tongued and quick, very loving and also very critical, and is just a legendary figure in my family. She actually worked in the theater—as a production secretary and assistant—and she remains a very devoted leftist. After the Revolution was largely about her late second husband, who was my father’s stepfather, his kids, and their kids, and also my step-cousins and step-uncles. But I left my own family out of this series of plays so Vera has no biological children.

In 4000 Miles, Leo and his grandmother have a very special relationship. Do you have a similar friendship with your own grandmother?

Yeah, I think so. And it’s something I began to appreciate after I became an adult—that she isn’t very grandmotherly at all, despite being extremely affectionate. She’s just sort of a contender in the room. She’s tough on people whether or not they’re related to her, maybe especially if they’re related to her. And she doesn’t assume that grandmotherly posture of sweetness and deference and distance with younger people. She just gets in the ring and engages with you, which can be wonderful and can be hard. This character, Leo, isn’t me at all, but I did live with my grandmother for a while when I first graduated from college and I encountered what it’s like to be her roommate. I’m very grateful for that period, mostly because we got in some fights, which I now think is completely remarkable. I worked through fights with my grandmother. Very few people can say that.

The play encompasses issues of growing old, impending death, and invisible life histories, as in the case of Vera’s off-stage neighbor. Did you intend to write about all this when you started work on 4000 Miles?

I did feel very strongly about writing an older character with the dimensions that I observed in my grandmother, because I do think there’s a way that older people can just disappear. I feel, in a very pronounced way, my own grandmother’s fight to remain present and relevant. You know, I never think in terms of themes or overarching concept when I begin plays. It’s usually something very specific. When I was doing a workshop of After the Revolution, in the spring of 2009 at Williamstown, I heard the news that one of my cousin’s closest friends had been killed in a rafting accident. I had met this young man briefly. That was the seed of 4000 Miles. I don’t think I had decided beforehand to write another play with Vera. I guess when I heard this horrible news about this very young man dying, there was some connection for me to how my grandmother deals with death at her age constantly. She’s just losing people it seems like several times a month. And, of course, she’s confronting the fact that she’s now 95; there are a limited amount of things that she can still sort of expect.

Has your grandmother seen the play?

Yes. She read it first because her hearing isn’t great and she wanted to hear every word of it. She thought all the actors spoke too quietly; that was her criticism of the production. But she has been proud of me for both of these plays. After seeing After the Revolution she said, “Well, Amy is very creative, but ultimately she’s a conservative.” She didn’t have a zinger like that for 4000 Miles. I think she was moved to see herself represented so specifically and to have such a large role, but honestly I don’t entirely know what she thought.

Are you still close to her?

I see her probably every week or two weeks. She’s frustrated because her hearing has deteriorated quite a bit and it’s just harder for her to have a conversation at the pace that she would otherwise like. But yes, she’s still really present.

Growing up in a leftist family gave you material for both After the Revolution and 4000 Miles. How did the politics of the family affect you personally?

What’s interesting is that my immediate family isn’t as engaged in this leftist tradition. My father and mother are liberals I would say. Maybe they would define themselves as leftist, but the people in the plays are based on my step-relatives who are activists, whose lives are really defined by their politics. I always had more of an observer kind of role, but I also grew up proud that my grandparents were communists and that my step-grandfather had been blacklisted. I think that was partly why, in my late 20s, I always felt eager to claim that tradition as my own. Now I’m really talking about what gave rise to After the Revolution. So even though my immediate family wasn’t as immersed in the tradition, I felt a really strong connection to it, and I began to examine it more as I got older.

What did give rise to After the Revolution?

It was exposed in 1999 that my grandfather, who had been blacklisted, had most likely supplied information to the Soviet Union when he was working in government in the 1940s. It is a very complicated conversation as to why he did that and what it meant. It was certainly a different angle to the story of his persecution at the hands of the U.S. government.

That was your step-grandfather. What about your own grandfather?

My grandmother’s first husband, Arthur Herzog, was a writer and a composer, mostly a lyricist. He worked with Billie Holliday a little bit and wrote a few songs. [He co-wrote “God Bless the Child.”] He was also a leftist and sort of the black sheep of his family because he came from a much more conservative moneyed Jewish family. I think he was a communist but his politics was less defining of his life than my step-grandfather, who I really grew up with.

Is it true that you might write a third play also based on your family?

Yeah, there’s still talk about it in my head. I don’t know yet what it is.

In the meantime you have two plays coming to New York next season: Belleville, which premiered at Yale last fall, coming to New York Theater Workshop, and your latest, The Great God Pan, which is scheduled at Playwrights Horizons. Can you tell us something about those plays?

Belleville came about partly from being in Paris. It’s historically an immigrant area, a really interesting place. I spent a lot of time there a few years ago. I can’t talk about it too much without giving away the play, but there’s a big central event that was based on three or four sources. The play has a thriller effect to it, so I was conscious of trying on a style, dealing with a genre that I love and respect. The Great God Pan is a play about a man in his early 30s who gets a visit from a childhood friend. He gets this new piece of information which sends him reeling. And it’s about him and various people who he’s close to, in the course of the two weeks that he’s dealing with this strange revelation. For some reason these plays are hard to talk about because there is something in it that you don’t want to give away.

Your husband, Sam Gold, is currently one of the A-list directors for new writing; he’s directed several plays by your close friend and contemporary Annie Baker. Is it by choice that, so far, he hasn’t directed your own work?

That’s been our method and we are going to continue it for a while I think. I hope that at some point we are going to try working together, but I don’t think it is imminent, and I don’t think it will be a new play that I have written going up in New York. I think it will be something slightly outside the box, maybe if I translated something. I love talking to him about his work and my work. Part of me thinks it would be really wonderful and part of me thinks that it seems to be going well keeping things separate, so we are not in a rush.

What do you look for most when writing for the theater?

I was just hoping today, idly, that I will have different phases in my writing career. I think the journey for me over the last so many years has been the emphasis on character. Right now I’m interested in writing really complicated characters, so that it’s worth the time of great actors to play them. It’s a fairly naturalistic, realistic moment that I’m at right now. I know that 10 years ago I was thinking very differently and maybe will be 10 years from now.