“4000 Miles,” playing at the Studio Theatre in DC through May 5, opens when twentysomething college dropout Leo turns up unexpectedly at his grandma’s New York City apartment. He’s lugging a bike, which he just used to travel cross-country, a grueling journey on which his best friend was killed–Leo skipped the funeral, and has been AWOL ever since.
Neither Leo nor his grandmother Vera are the world’s most lovable characters. Leo uses his dead friend to try to get laid, says that things are “more honest” when he really means “easier,” puts his feet on the couch, and expects his grandma to wait on him. (In fact both Leo and his girlfriend come across as really self-centered in that “spilling other people’s stuff and not cleaning it up” way.) Vera is irascible and prone to calling everybody “stupid.” She’s a (former?) Communist, and there are the usual “old people aren’t what they used to be” jokes, like when Leo tells her that the dress she’s planning to wear to a friend’s funeral is so sheer that you can see her bra: “Of course it is, that’s why I’m wearing this bra! It’s the bra that goes with this dress.” But it’s genuinely affecting to watch these two people with diminishing connections to others attempting to forge a bond with one another.
The play is too complex to be reduced to a message. This is mostly good, although a little bit more message might have helped the play’s conclusion: Eavesdropping told me that I was not the only audience member who felt like the play just stopped rather than coming to an ending. There’s a surprising streak of traditionalism here, a defense of getting a job, becoming a man (and not just a gender-neutral adult, either!), reconciling with your family even when they’re kind of awful, and entering into the rituals prescribed by your culture rather than the individualistic ones you make up on your own.
There are also the advice scenes. Advice and its uselessness are recurring themes of media aimed at “millennial” young adults. They’re simultaneously seeking advice from their elders and primed for disappointment, braced for advice which is useless or terrible. They definitely don’t trust the parental generation. In “4000 miles” the advice comes from the grandparent generation and, because it seems too cynical and resigned and old-fashioned, it’s summarily rejected. Vera tries to be blunt and realistic about men and their idiocies, but Leo’s girlfriend just tells her, “I don’t make allowances of that kind based on gender.” Yes well, let me know how that works out for you.
It’s hard to find stories based entirely on the phenomenon of giving advice, even though it’s such a huge part of our lives. There’s Emma, but I’d be interested in hearing about other stories which explore the ways advice can be taken or mistaken, rejected, or misinterpreted. Advice often assumes some degree of intergenerational trust, and always assumes that you’re not a special and unique snowflake. My impression is that movies and TV aimed at millennials often show a real longing for intergenerational connection and a sarcastic backlash against the belief that everyone’s special and different; put together, these two impulses lead to a lot of advice scenes. Commenters, what are your candidates for insightful artistic portrayals of bad, good, or just irrelevant advice?