Wednesday, February 5, 2020

158 (2019-2020): Review: GRAND HORIZONS (seen February 4, 2020)

“Divorce Geriatric Style”

There’s a line in Henry Roth’s 1934 novel, Call It Sleep, where someone says of a play showing the suffering of Samson: “I go to theater to laugh. Shall I go there and be tormented when life itself is a plague? No, give me rather a mad jester or the antics of a spry wench.”
Jane Alexander. All photos: Joan Marcus.
There are no mad jesters in it but spry certainly describes the stars of Bess Wohl’s (Small Mouth Sounds) comedy Grand Horizons, which premiered last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and is now getting a Broadway showing at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater. Seeing it at the same time as a certain speech was being delivered made me realize how fortunate I was to be laughing at the theatre instead of shouting at my TV.

Grand Horizons isn’t really that funny—even with all the geriatric jokes, including a bit about Alzheimer’s!—but many will find its blend of laughter and schmaltz, lightheartedly directed by Leigh Silverman (The Lifespan of a Fact), diverting enough to reduce the stress from the daily political and viral plagues surrounding us.

Grand Horizons is an old-fashioned, two-hour, two-act throwback to the kind of family sitcoms in which Broadway audiences long indulged: a mildly provocative subject; one-liners and more substantial jokes, the determinedly risqué ones springing from the most unexpected mouths; dysfunctional relationships that propel heartwarming pieties about the need for better human communication and the meanings of love; a surprising, physical coup de théâtre; and a cast composed of charismatic actors, junior and senior, portraying a situation and circumstances just recognizable enough from the audience’s own actual or imagined lives to grab and hold its interest.
Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell.
The subject is quickly established in the brief opening scene as retired librarian Nancy (Jane Alexander, The Great White Hope) and her husband of 50 years, retired pharmacist Bill (James Cromwell, Babe: Pig in the City), prepare to share a meal in their neat, little bungalow (precisely captured in Clint Ramos’s design, efficiently lit by Jen Schriever). As Bryce Cutler’s aerial view projection on the show curtain reveals, it’s one of many cookie-cutter homes just like it in their “independent living community” of Grand Horizons.

They sit across from one another, pecking at their food, their wordless, ritualistic behavior based on countless previous iterations. Finally, Nancy speaks up: “I think I would like a divorce,” to which the complacent Bill says, simply, “All right.” Blackout.
Jane Alexander, James Cromwell.
Cue the family angst as their adult children arrive to supervise the fallout and contemplate its effect on their own lives. Older son Ben (Ben McKenzie, TV’s “Gotham”), a stressed-out lawyer, is married to super-pregnant Jess (Ashley Park, Mean Girls), a therapist. Younger son Brian (Michael Urie, The Government Inspector), is an overtly gay theatre teacher so emotionally fragile and anxious to make his students happy that he’s adapted The Crucible to accommodate 200 actors. That concept, while amusing at first hearing, is one of several comic exaggerations reminding us that, no matter how plausible her premise, the playwright sometimes chooses the big yuck over dramatic plausibility.
Michael Urie.
Naturally, the presence of the children in the midst of Bill and Nancy’s late-life crisis allows Wohl to let various cats (or, in this play, pussies) out of the bag, as Ben and Brian’s sibling rivalry mingles with the revelation of long-held marital secrets (or what were thought secrets), involving romantic dalliances. We even meet the object of Bill’s affections in the person of the colorfully outspoken Carla (Priscilla Lopez, A Chorus Line). 
Ben McKenzie, James Cromwell.
Wohl provides her elders a full complement of naughtily comedic talk about things like sexting, vibrators, and oral sex that strain the laugh meter’s capacity when spouted, unexpectedly, by Equity members of septuagenarian and octogenarian distinction.
Priscilla Lopez, Jane Alexander.
As is wont to happen in such situations, the children feel the pressure on their own lives. Ben and Jess are forced to engage in their own minor marital skirmishes, while Brian finds himself incapable of following through with a pickup named Tommy (Maulik Pancholy).
Michael Urie, Maulik Pancholy.
Desperate as he is for affection, bringing this guy to his parents’ home, with its paper-thin walls, for some penis to penis activity, is a bit of a stretch. The same is true of another full-voiced, middle-of-the-night, living-room convo, with all the lights on.

While the reason Nancy offers for why, despite loving someone else, she married Bill is reasonable enough, it’s questionable whether, with all their suppressed resentments, they really never bickered during their half-century marriage. Most marriages don’t work like that. More common, even in the most stable marriages, are, at the very least, minor disagreements. Take for example, the one my wife and I, who celebrated our 57th anniversary only the day before, had regarding just how Bill and Nancy’s garage is situated so as to account for the show’s big visual joke (my lips are sealed).
James Cromwell.
There’s also an iffy sequence in which Bill, who thinks he has potential as a standup comic, delivers a routine directly to us as if breaking the fourth wall, although it gradually looks more like he’s simply trying out his material for his own benefit, not ours. Still, the bit is confusing since, if it’s just a rehearsal, in real life he’d be nose to nose with a wall.

Much as Grand Horizons is escapist fare, it has its occasionally valuable emotional and psychological insights into the ups and downs of long-term relationships. For example, there’s talk of things like the necessity for compromise, how the bonds of mutual dependence become an unconscious part of a couple’s DNA, and how, even in their dotage, people can still feel the need to define themselves. Thus we get Nancy’s preoccupation with salvaging used clothes for refugees, and Bill’s perception of himself as a comedian. In fact, what may be the show’s funniest moment springs—not organically out of a discussion—but from Bill’s telling a standard joke you can actually find online about a group of nuns seeking entry to heaven.
Ashley Park, Ben McKenzie.
The ensemble generally delivers the goods. Park is brightly appealing as Jess; McKenzie is acceptably distressed as Ben; Lopez is a delicious live-wire as the other woman; Pancholy has comic spark as the one-night stand; Alexander brings intelligence and humor to her not always believable role; Cromwell tempers Bill’s dyed-in-the-wool crankiness with quality comic chops; and Urie, as usual, is energetically expressive, although his mannerisms are becoming increasingly routine.
James Cromwell, Jane Alexander.
Laugh-worthy as much of Wohl’s comedy is, one thing definitely not is the multiple appearances of illusion-busting, black-clad stagehands, all their electronic gear in place, who barge in periodically to make prop shifts. Why, in our technologically advanced day and age, this antediluvian convention can’t be avoided is a question I’ve asked over and over. If even this production of Grand Horizons hasn’t figured out a solution, then maybe Broadway’s horizons aren’t as grand as one might think.

Second Stage Theater/The Helen Hayes Theater
220 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 1