Writing a play like Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, now in its west coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater, must be like driving a car whose wheels are out of alignment. The play, about a young man who moves in with his grandmother after a fraught bike trip across the country, has a natural tendency to careen toward sentimentality; that trait is written into the genetics of any premise in which young and old begin with conflicts but eventually learn from one another and evolve together. The writer at the helm must thus be ever vigilant, correcting her story's innate desire to make its audience clasp its hands and coo "aw."
When Herzog succeeds in this effort, it's often by making Leo (Reggie Gowland) lace his retorts to Grandma Vera (Susan Blommaert) with f-bombs. To his credit, Gowland finds subtle ways to emphasize his character's moments of cruelty, making statements like "I'm sorry I worry people, I am, but it's not my responsibility" sound like questions, as if he didn't trust his listener to handle a harsh statement without the cushion of upward inflection. Such lines show alertness to the story's potential to become trite or mawkish.
Still, Herzog, aided by director Mark Rucker, often allows preciousness to creep back in. There's a line at the end of the play (spoiler alert!) about a green thumb next door who "could make anything grow," an obvious metaphor for the blossoming of the grandmother-grandson relationship, which is made all the more cloying by the final tableau: Leo chivalrously taking Vera's arm as they walk out together.
It doesn't help that Vera is an archetypally cute old person. She was once a tough leftie, but in her dotage, much to her disgust, "whaddyacallits" interrupt her philosophizing. She makes tart, laugh track-ready remarks -- "I never thought I'd see the day" when, after a prolonged stint crashing at her apartment, Leo applies for a full-time job. Especially with Blommaert's slight frame and comically jerky mannerisms, Vera would be a natural in a sitcom.
The play aspires to be about collisions between generations and notions of progressivism -- Vera's New Deal-inflected Marxism vs. Leo's crunchy, politically correct moral relativism -- and also parallels. There are two griefs, two failures in love, two self-imposed isolations. But Herzog only suggests these grand comparisons, grounding her dialogue in the banalities of her characters' daily lives: rock-wall climbing, wheeling laundry downstairs in a wire cart, searching for a misplaced checkbook. As a result, the play is often about nothing in particular. Vera and Leo fly under the cloud of themes stewing overhead, a charming couple o' pals in a slice-of-life drama that's as light and fluffy as a piece of angel food cake.
4000 Miles continues through February 10 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary, S.F. Admission is $25 and up.