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Jewish Rep again presents an intense multi-generational loving conflict with Amy Herzog’s 4,000 MILES

THE BASICS:  4,000 MILES (finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), the first of three plays by Amy Herzog being presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre this season, directed by Saul Elkin, starring Nick Stevens, Ellen Horst, Marissa Biondolillo, and Sara Kow-Falcone, runs through November 20, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 & 8, Sundays at 2 at The Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville (688-4114 x391). www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Leo Joseph-Connell (Nick Stevens) a 21-year-old who is completing a 4,000 mile bicycle trek from the Pacific to the Atlantic (Seattle to Manhattan) shows up at 3 a.m. at his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment. Vera Joseph (Ellen Horst), 91, a widow, lives alone, but does errands every day, and maintains a quirky  telephone “buddy check” system with another elderly woman in the next apartment. During Leo’s stay with his grandmother, they bond and bicker, but they do have one thing in common, complaining about Leo’s mom back home in St. Paul. We get strong performances from everyone, including Leo’s estranged 21-year-old girlfriend Bec (Marissa Biondolillo) and Amanda (Sara Kow-Falcone) a slightly tipsy 19-year-old Chinese American city girl out for a one night stand with Leo, who with his beard and lumberjack shirt is her exotic “mountain man.”  In this play, Leo at first seems diffident, and part of that is generational, but he has also recently suffered a death of a dear friend. In the end, though, he reveals himself to be well on his way to manhood.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: There were a number of parallels with JRT’s recent excellent production of BAD JEWS, also a four-person drama with a very strong cast set entirely in a living room of a Manhattan apartment, where Nick Stevens also plays a seemingly diffident young man who, in the end, reveals that he had more grit all along than we knew. As one person put it “BAD JEWS was Nick’s audition for 4,000 MILES.”

Ellen Horst is, as expected, a rock on stage, with a consistency and believability that are JRT hallmarks.

Ellen Horst is, as expected, a rock on stage, with a consistency and believability that are JRT hallmarks. But the two younger women, with smaller parts, were equally strong. Marissa Biondolillo’s character Bec, the ex-girlfriend, is so repressed and we suffer along with her as she accepts the breakup which she knows is the best thing, all the while it’s breaking her heart. What an expressive face and voice she has.

And Sara Kow-Falcone as Amanda, the party girl, brought an energy that supplies a refreshing change of pace and perspective to the play, but in a way entirely consistent with the play. It’s a role that would be easy to overdo, but she, as with everyone else, does not seem to be playing a role as much as inhabiting a character.

The theater inside the Jewish Community Center, where the first row of seats are on the same level as and only a few feet from the set, has a very similar feel to the Irish Classical’s Andrews Theater in the round, or Road Less Traveled Production’s space. In other words, you are right there, inches from the actors. If they are “phoning it in” you can tell, but when they have internalized the roles and are right there in the moment, creating a reality that you can touch, well, that’s theatrical magic. And each person – Nick Stevens, Ellen Horst, Marissa Biondolillo, and Sara Kow-Falcone – made that magic.

I saw 4,000 MILES two days after seeing another Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist (1983’s TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard at Road Less Traveled Productions) and I must say that Buffalo theaters are working hard to bring us the best.

I saw 4,000 MILES two days after seeing another Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist (1983’s TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard at Road Less Traveled Productions) and I must say that Buffalo theaters are working hard to bring us the best. And, just as with RLTP, the acting is superb and the staging and props are just as wonderful. Stephen Sheehy’s set features Gramma Vera’s old black rotary phone, the Yellow Pages phone book, the afghans over the furniture, and my favorite, Vera’s coffee mug from Zabar’s, the deli/specialty food store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a cultural icon. The costumes were fine and the music from sound designer Tom Makar is unique and fits the play.

My one complaint is that this play, to me, is just too long to run without an intermission. The standard for a one-act play is 90 minutes. While it does hold your attention, this play was announced as 1 hour and 45 minutes, and actually took slightly longer. The breaks between the scenes seemed long to me and, honestly, after Vera and Leo sit on the couch “celebrating the diurnal equinox” that’s a pause in the action that would have been a perfect time for an intermission. My spouse disagrees, however, and says that the 100 minutes just flew by.

JRT is devoting their entire season to plays by Amy Herzog. AFTER THE REVOLUTION  (a grand-daughter continues her blacklisted grandfather’s Marxist legacy) will run February 9 to March 5, 2017 and THE GREAT GOD PAN (about memory and self-discovery) will be on stage April 27 to May 21, 2017.

Fun Fact: Amy Herzog’s grandfather was Arthur Herzog Jr. best known for working with Billie Holiday with whom he co-wrote “God Bless the Child.”

Lead image: Taken during rehearsal – Nick Stevens and Ellen Horst

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*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how “it” all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he’s conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at answers. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply “What’s goin’ on?” In every situation he’s in Peter wonders: “What’s the big picture here?” And, “if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?”

That’s why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM “Theater Talk” repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the afternoon drive host as well as producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED). For the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he moderates on-stage pre-concert chats with the artists and is on-stage host of the Falletta (classical guitar) Competition.

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the “Artie Awards Committee.”

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