BWW Review: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell On The Rocky Road To Divorce in Bess Wohl's Very Funny GRAND HORIZONS
Michael Urie, Ashley Park, Ben McKenzie, Priscilla Lopez co-star in Leigh Silverman's production.
Back in that age we call golden, Broadway marquees were frequently set ablaze by long-running plays that producers looking to turn a profit lovingly referred to as boulevard comedies. These were typically middlebrow laugh machines expertly crafted by the likes of Mary Chase, Neil Simon or Abe Burrows (Think HARVEY, THE ODD COUPLE or CACTUS FLOWER), involving contemporary everyday characters in realistic situations containing just enough sentiment to make you care about what happens next, while maybe even wrapping up with an uncontroversial, heartwarming message.
In her Broadway debut, playwright Bess Wohl nails the genre beautifully with Grand Horizons, which, with an expert cast perfectly guided by Leigh Silverman's directorial hand, provides two hours of solid laughs (including some pretty high peaks of riotous guffaws) while quizzically pondering issues of love and marriage.
The title comes from the name of the senior citizen community where Nancy and Bill (a poised and elegant Jane Alexander matched with a gruff and uncommunicative James Cromwell) live in a bland little box identical to all of their neighbors' bland little boxes.
A brief, but extremely effective and very funny opening scene, shows how, after more than 50 years of marriage, their lives are pretty much on silent automatic pilot. It's no spoiler to mention that the silence of their dinner is broken by Nancy calmly informing her husband, "I think I would like a divorce."
Bill's reply is as casual and accommodating as if she had just asked him to pass the salt.
And then the kids enter into the picture and all hell breaks loose.
One of their sons, Brian (a perpetually flabbergasted Michael Urie), is a drama teacher who hates disappointing his young students and is exorbitantly proud that he has fit 200 kids into THE CRUCIBLE by creating a townful of small roles ("John Proctor has a sister, Reverend Hale has a sort of assistant reverend.") and having the lead roles divided into sections that can played by different actors ("A third of the way through, the first Abigail switches with a new Abigail, but we all know it's still the same Abigail because she takes off her locket and gives it to the other Abigail.").
This aversion to disappointment selfishly drives his view of his parents' impending divorce as a personal attack that has made a lie out of his childhood.
Their other son, Ben (Ben McKenzie), is a lawyer and tries thinking strategically about what the next moves should be, while his pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park), a therapist, tries putting her in-laws through bonding exercises like holding hands and expressing their fantasies.
But to try and figure out what went wrong with Nancy and Bill's marriage would be to assume that there was something right with it in the first place. Bill prides himself as having never missed a day of work in his career as a pharmacist, setting aside his lifelong dream to be a stand-up comedian. Nancy has spent most of her life wearing the identities of wife and mother, but her new volunteers work running a clothing drive to benefit refugees has sparked an interest to see more of the world.
Both have had affairs and Wohl gets a lot of comic mileage out of having Nancy explicitly describe her former lover's skills, but rather than settle for the traditional laugh from having an elderly woman speaking in graphic sexual terms, the scene is funny because of Brian's extreme discomfort in seeing his mother as a normal sexual being.
Similarly, the perfectly charming Priscilla Lopez's one scene as Bill's new fling, Carla, has her describing the delights of her hands-free vibrator with refreshing normalcy.
Issues of communication are dealt with broadly in a scene where Brian brings back a late-night pick-up (Maulik Pancholy) who mistakes his concern that their sex might wake up his parents for a role-playing scenario, and with a bit more finesse regarding Ben's struggle to remember to stop calling Jess "babe" after she tells him that the endearment she used to enjoy now seems inappropriate.
Regarding Nancy and Bill, as memories are rehashed and the future is considered, they begin to realize that they settled into a routine without ever really learning to communicate their desires to each other. Wohl provides the optimism that each of them is taking a step forward. We're on our own to wonder if it's best for them to take that step together or separately.