Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: In Amy Herzog’s “4,000 Miles,” a directionless young man moves in with his feisty grandma and it works, at A.C.T. through February 10, 2013

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In Amy Herzog’s new play 4,000 Miles, which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.), twenty-something Leo, arrives in the middle of the night at his grandma Vera’s apartment in Greenwich Village after having biked some 4,000 miles from Seattle.  She’s an old Communist and he epitomizes the aimlessness of the failure-to-launch generation.  While on the trip, there was an accident and Leo’s best friend and biking partner was killed, and he decides to take respite with Vera, a surprisingly spry 91-year-old widow.  As these two unlikely roommates re-connect, both grief-shattered in their own way, a surprisingly tender, honest and healing connection is forged which makes for a quietly captivating drama.  What’s unique about this play, is that on its opening night—last Wednesday—it managed to pack the Geary Theatre, at least the balcony section where I was seated, with young adults who were thoroughly engrossed in its story.   How wonderful it was to see row after row of young and older, side by side, everyone enjoying this intergenerational drama.  

As it turns out, playwright Amy Herzog is just 33 but she’s on a roll—“4000 Miles” was the recipient of two 2012 Obie Awards, including best new American play.  4000 Miles had its 2011 world premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre, where it played to sold-out houses and received accolades from critics.  At A.C.T., under Mark Rucker’s skillful direction, the play’s emotional resonance lingers long after the 95 minute performance.

Like many young adults, easy-going Leo is searching for something that will give his life meaning.  And while it’s not immediately obvious, he actually has a lot in common with his grandma—they are both non-conformists, refreshingly honest, good listeners and open minded.  That’s a very good thing because all the other women in Leo’s life have issues with him.  His mother is disappointed in his ability to keep in touch, especially after he and his adoptive sister got high on Peyote and he kissed her.  His adoptive sister is supposedly in therapy over the event.  Bec, his girlfriend, can’t understand his immaturity.  And Amanda, a drunken young woman he picks up and brings home to Vera’s place, can’t figure out what he wants either.  After some initial trust issues are worked through, Vera really warms to Leo’s presence and has a palpable influence on him.  By listening and not judging, she meets his emotional needs and, by the end of the play, Leo is exhibiting some long overdue maturity.  He is salve for her wounds too.  As Vera talks about the old days, her marriage and the family, Leo listens.  This is priceless because Leo, it turns out, is her sole confidant.

Herzog based the play on her real-life grandmother, Leepee Joseph, now 96, who she lived with for six months in New York when she was just getting her start as a novice actor.   Leepee also figured prominently in her 2010 play “After the Revolution,” which has character named Vera Joseph, who was also a widowed grandma and card-carrying Communist.  In that play, Vera’s granddaughter learns that Vera’s deceased husband had been a Soviet spy.  Herzog also drew inspiration from her own grueling cross-country bike ride trip a decade ago with Habitat for Humanity that ended with a ride across the Golden Gate Gate Bridge.

Reggie Gowland shines as soft-spoken, laid-back and scrambled Leo and there’s a lot to recognize in this character.  Leo epitomizes the generation of young adults now in their twenties—aimless but likeable adult-kids who are ambling through life, unable to make decisions and satisfied to let the chips fall as they may.

Susan Blommaert plays Vera Joseph as a declining force to be reckoned with.   Her interaction with Leo is funny and seems completely natural; whether she’s accusing him of stealing something she’s actually misplaced or reaching her limit when it comes to talk about sex or searching for a forgotten word.  She also has an affecting and gruff phone rapport with her elderly neighbor.  They have a kind of mutual pact where they call each other daily, partially out of loneliness and to make sure they are each still alive.  Blommaert, 65, is well-known to audiences from her roles in various episodes of the long-running tv series Law and Order, as well as The Good Wife, Guarding Tess, Boardwalk Empire and Doubt. 

Julia Lawler is excellent as Bec, Leo’s long-distance girlfriend who has recently completed college and can no longer relate to Leo’s ambling mentality.

Camille Mana is delightful as inebriated Parson’s student who Leo brings home for a make-out session that is interrupted by Vera.

Everything flows naturally in Herzog’s compassionate drama which all takes place in Vera’s pleasantly out-of-date living room.  At the end of “4,000 Miles,” we come to realization that being a young adult and an adult facing the end of life, are very confusing and frustrating times.  While each of Herzog’s four characters has a complex back story, as we all do, the light is clearly focused on Leo and Vera.  And even though we might like to believe that we don’t have too much in common with these two wounded souls, both grappling with the shattering aftershock of death—one about to graduate to adulthood and the other witnessing it slip away—we all do.

Run Time: 95 minutes without intermission.

CAST: Reggie Gowland as Leo Joseph-Connell; Susan Blommaert as Vera Joseph; Julia Lawler as Bec; and Camille Mana as Amanda.

CREATIVE TEAM: 4000 Miles is directed by A.C.T. Associate Director Mark Rucker with scenic designer Erik Flatmo (Higher and Scapin at A.C.T.); costume designer Alex Jaeger (Maple and Vine and Once in a Lifetime at A.C.T.; Looped at Pasadena Playhouse); lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols (Endgame and Play at A.C.T.; Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway and Wishful Drinking on Broadway); and sound design by Will McCandless (Higher at A.C.T.; Spunk and Blithe Spirit at California Shakespeare Theater).

Audience Exchanges: Stick around after the shows on Tuesday, January 29 at 7 p.m., Sunday, February 3 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday February 6 at 2 p.m. for a lively Q&A with the actors and artists who create the work onstage.

Details: 4,000 Miles runs through February 10, 2013 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets: $20-$105, available online through A.C.T.’s online box office or (415) 439-2473.

January 26, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Like father??? Lorenzo Pisoni’s “Humor Abuse” reflects on his life as a clown and the son of Pickle’s founding clown Larry Pisoni─ at A.C.T., extended through Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lorenzo Pisoni as his father Larry Pisoni, one of the founders of the Pickle Family Circus. A.C.T. presents “Humor Abuse,” Pisoni’s one man show about growing up as the youngest member of the Pickle Family Circus. Historic photo featured on set by Terry Lorant. Production photo by Chris Bennion.

Ahhh… men and their fathers….one can’t can’t help but be a reflection of the other.  What makes Lozeno Pisoni’s one man show, Humor Abuse at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) so special is that it is hilariously funny, packed with dazzling tricks, and, at its core, it’s all about growing up with a very controlling dad and making peace with it.  Lorenzo Pisoni is the youngest member of the Pickle Family Circus and the son of Pickle co-founder Larry Pisoni.  In  Humor Abuse, Pisoni not only shows off the tricks of the trade he learned from his father, he also relates the complex relationship he had on and offstage with him.  Pisoni first appeared onstage at the age of two.  He became his father’s clown partner not long after, and he continued to perform with the troupe during his teens.   A natural storyteller, Pisoni’s recollections are centered around physically demanding tricks (both newly created acts as well as and reenactments of his father’s famous Pickle performances) that show off his skills as a juggler, acrobatic, clown, and physical comedian.   This is one show where it really pays to sit as possible to the stage, to get a good glimpse of the vein-popping, sweat-drenched rigor and special protective padding involved in pulling off a clowning stunt like casually tripping down a flight of stairs or jumping off a platform into a bucket or performing a series of handstands, cartwheels and body-slamming vaults and then juggling.   

Lorenzo Pisoni with an old photo of his two-year old self. Historic photo by Terry Lorant. Production photo by Chris Bennion.

Breathtaking and funny, Pisoni’s show also contains several bittersweet moments when he reflects on his father’s perfectionism and how he was forced to practice a trick for several hours, days on end, to master it.  No matter how perfectly he performed it, he would always garner criticism, rarely praise, from his father.   Sound familiar?   The show is aptly titled—you get a good sense of the physical abuse that these daring comedic feats impart on the body and a sense of the deeper current of torment that Lorenzo experienced growing up under the thumb of such a perfectionist.  And it will come as no surprise that, aside from the circus, the father and son have little in common.   It seems that what lay at the bottom of all these physical acts Lorenzo performed to perfection was disappointment, something missing, some essential emotional territory that the relationship didn’t meet.  But it’s not a downer, at least not anymore…Pisoni, actually seems to be cherishing the opportunity to express and revision himself…because underneath it all is the quest for his own unique identity.  Larry Pisoni was one sour Pickle but Lorenzo has emerged a sweet one.      

Lorenzo Pisoni performs "Humor Abuse," his one-man show about growing up as the youngest member of the Pickle Family Circus. Historic photo featured on set by Terry Lorant. Production photo by Chris Bennion.

 Pickle Family Circus History:  Pisoni was born into the Pickle Family Circus shortly after his parents, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, founded the alternative big top in 1974 with their juggling partner Cecil MacKinnon.  After Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle joined their ranks—creating the incomparable clown trio of Lorenzo Pickle (Pisoni), Willy the Clown (Irwin), and Mr. Sniff (Hoyle)—the Pickles became a venerable and beloved Bay Area institution.  They toured the West Coast (and beyond) through the 1980s and ’90s and led the charge in the renewal of the American circus, exchanging animal acts and pyrotechnics in the supersized three-ring format with daring acrobatics and its famous show-stopping group juggle, all presented on one intimate stage so audiences would not miss a single moment.  

Bill Irwin opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season with Scapin.  Pisoni last appeared on the A.C.T. stage in 2005’s in the hugely popular The Gamester.  He also recently performed in Broadway’s Equus alongside Daniel Radcliffe and says: “Ever since Erica (Schmidt) and I created Humor Abuse, I’ve wanted to do it in San Francisco…I know many A.C.T. audience members will have a deep, nostalgic connection to what happens in the play because the Pickles were a part of San Francisco’s culture for so long.”

Humor Abuse  runs 80 minutes with no intermission. 

Humor Abuse: Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt.  Directed by Erica Schmidt.

Creative Team:  Hannah Cohen (stage manager), Randy Craig (composer), Bart Fasbender (sound designer), Ben Stanton (lighting designer)

Featuring Lorenzo Pisoni

Related Events:  A.C.T. Family Series (NEW this season!): Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, before the 2 p.m. performance.    Join A.C.T. at 1 p.m. for a fun preshow event!  An A.C.T. artist will lead a lively, interactive workshop on clowning and physical theater.  Visit for information about how to subscribe to the A.C.T. Family Series throughout the season.

Details: Humor Abuse has been extended through Sunday, February 5, 2012.  The Geary Theater is located at 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at  

Up Next at A.C.T:  February 1-19, 2012:  The world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, directed by Mark Rucker.

In this smart and sexy new play, two American architects dive into a high-stakes competition to design a memorial in Israel. They’re also in love—but don’t know that they are vying against one another. Higher whisks us from sleek New York studios to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as the architects confront their own pasts in a race to make their mark on history. Faith, family, desire, and design fuel this thrilling new work, featuring A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen and A.C.T. favorite Andrew Polk (The Homecoming, November). (Learn more.)  Note:  Performances of “Higher” take place at the The Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum Theater), 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco.

February 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment