'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
James Cromwell and Jane Alexander in 'Grand Horizons'
The performers shine in this amusing but disappointingly sitcom-like material.
3/1/2020

Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Ben McKenzie and Michael Urie appear in the new comedy by 'Small Mouth Sounds' playwright Bess Wohl about a couple getting divorced after 50 years of marriage.

Watching the new comedy by the normally more adventurous playwright Bess Wohl, it's hard to avoid the feeling that it resembles a never-aired episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. The play features a squabbling elderly couple and their adult children who trade sharp one-liners while dealing with a domestic crisis. And if you've seen the memorable episode of the long-running sitcom in which Marie, the family matriarch played by Doris Roberts, crashes a car through the Barone family house, you will have effectively gotten a sneak preview of one of the more startling moments in Second Stage Theater's Broadway production of Grand Horizons.

The play, which also calls to mind the sort of middle-of-the-road boulevard comedies, many of them by Neil Simon, that used to appear regularly on the Great White Way, revolves around octogenarians Nancy (Jane Alexander) and Bill (James Cromwell). They are first seen engaging in the sort of precisely detailed dinnertime rituals instantly signifying that they've been married for a very long time. Fifty years, in fact, which makes Nancy's sudden announcement that she wants a divorce all the more startling.

It's a particular pleasure to see seven-time Tony nominee (and winner in 1969 for The Great White Hope) Alexander and Cromwell making belated returns to the New York stage after decades-long absences. The distinguished performers deliver cannily understated, sardonically funny turns.

Their characters are soon joined at the nondescript retirement community that gives the play its title (designed by Clint Ramos with perfect cookie-cutter blandness) by their concerned adult children, Brian (Michael Urie, Ugly Betty) and Ben (Ben McKenzie, Gotham, struggling to make an impression), the latter accompanied by his very pregnant wife Jess (talented Mean Girls Tony nominee Ashley Park, not given enough to do).

Not surprisingly, the two sons are aghast at their mother's decision, and by their father's apparent willingness to go along with it. Of course, Bill having "something on the side" — as Nancy puts it about his girlfriend living in a nearby community dubbed "Vista View" — may have something to do with his nonchalance. Bill, who spent his life working as a pharmacist, seems to be going through an identity crisis as well, expressing a desire to fulfill his longtime dream of becoming a stand-up comic.

He certainly has plenty of competition in that department, since every character in the play delivers his or her lines with the expert timing of Borscht Belt comedians. Much of the humor springs from the supposed hilarity of older people expressing their sexuality, such as Nancy's explicit recounting of a long-ago romantic liaison with a former high school sweetheart, or Bill sexting with his new girlfriend Carla (Broadway veteran Priscilla Lopez of A Chorus Line fame, practically stealing the show in her brief appearance). When Nancy and Carla form an unlikely friendship, the latter delivers a rapturous description of her sessions with an egg-shaped vibrator.

That last scene, by the way, feels extraneous, as does an encounter between Brian and a young man (a very funny Maulik Pancholy) he brings to the house for a late-night tryst despite the fact that his parents and sibling are just upstairs and the walls are paper-thin. The lengthy scene, which mainly serves for Urie to showcase his hilarious comedic delivery, feels like padding in an evening that runs two-and-a-quarter hours and seems at least 30 minutes too long.

Many of the gags feel trivial, such as repeated references to the stress-induced eczema of Ben, and descriptions of high school drama teacher Brian's upcoming production of The Crucible featuring 200 students. "Every kid who wants a part gets one," he explains. "I don't want anyone to be disappointed."

That much of this formulaic material nonetheless proves highly amusing is a testament to Wohl's often genuinely funny writing, the expert comic direction of Leigh Silverman and the ensemble's terrific performances. The old-fashioned play, co-commissioned by Second Stage and The Williamstown Theatre Festival (where it premiered last summer, starring JoBeth Williams, Jamey Sheridan, Thomas Sadoski and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), feels like a departure coming from the author of such stylistically daring works as Small Mouth Sounds and Make Believe. Ironically, it will probably become her most popular work to date; it's easy to imagine Grand Horizons becoming a huge crowd-pleaser in regional theaters, with its two lead roles catnip for veteran performers.

And those veteran performers will have an opportunity to shine, as do Alexander and Cromwell, especially in the play's final and best scene, in which Nancy and Bill let down their guards and reveal the love that has kept them together for so many years. For those few minutes, at least, Grand Horizons achieves a poignancy and depth that have otherwise eluded it.

Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York
Cast: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, Ben McKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park, Michael Urie
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: Clint Ramos
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Projection designer: Bryce Cutler
Presented by Second Stage Theater