Many of us aren’t offered press tickets until after a play has opened and been reviewed by major papers. I, for one, don’t read opinions until after I’ve seen the piece and drafted my own. Grand Horizons has been disparaged for lack of originality, especially compared to playwright Bess Whol’s last terrific effort, Make Believe. She’s even been accused of selling out – i.e. pandering to marketability.
I’d like to counter. First, a world in turmoil needs lighter fare, yet theater and film rarely offer it these days. Why must every dramatization reflect the rancor, frustration, and politics of daily life? Wohl’s younger characters may be clichés, but Horizons is deftly written and structured, entertaining, and well acted. Second, this middle class comedy of manners is redeemed by its seniors. Go. Have a good time.
Octogenarians Nancy (Jane Alexander) and husband Bill (James Cromwell) soundlessly prepare a meal in the WHITE kitchen of their assisted living community home. (Set Designer Clint Ramos creates the cookie-cutter residence with support bars and skill.) They move around one another without a glance, like a well oiled machine. Bill secretly adds salt to his meat. Each sits and takes a single bite. “I think I would like a divorce,” she says quietly. Beat. “Alright,” he responds.
Sons Brian (Michel Urie), Ben (Ben McKenzie), and Ben’s pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park) descend upon the couple like the Furies. The folks have been married fifty years. Brian and Ben have never seen them fight. There must be something the kids are not being told.
Ben, a grounded businessman somewhat, one gleans, like his dad, approaches the “situation” calmly. (“Big whoop,” Bill comments packing the toaster.) Touchy-feeley couples’ therapist, Jess, makes the couple recall their first date, eliciting sarcasm, and suggests they hold hands. “How does that feel?” she asks. “Fine,” Nancy responds. “Stupid,” Bill says. letting go. “Intimacy may be difficult in later years…” Jess persists.
Nancy’s great fantasy is to eat dinner alone in a restaurant, while Bill’s is to make an audience laugh. (He’s taking a course in stand-up comedy.) Towards the end of the play, both simultaneously say aloud what they want. “A cat,” says Nancy; “death with dignity,” remarks Bill. Men are from Mars, Women from Venus runs through the piece like a backbone.
Younger son Brian, a gay, narcissistic drama teacher, is literally hysterical at the thought of his parents splitting up. It’s as if his own underpinnings would shift. Any allusion to their having sex (there are many) embarrasses him as it might a prepubescent child. It also, apparently, disconcerts the adult theater audience who consistently laugh at body part names and descriptions of carnal knowledge out of the mouths of senior women. This may be an indication of just how much we need to decompress.
Brian is the kind of role at which actor Michael Urie excels. One can only call his timing – twitches, exclamations, facial reactions – pitch perfect. And, yes, over the top. “Life could be very lonely,” he warns, referring, in part, to his own. Observation of an aborted triste (with pick-up Tommy – an able Maulik Pancholy) – offers a prime example.
When Nancy shares a personal secret from her past, familial allegiances appreciably shift. Following on its heels, the genuinely surprising end of Act I changes everything. By Act II, much to the chagrin of Nancy and Bill, the kids have taken up interfering residence.
The seniors demand agency with specific, realistic plans. An admission by Bill finds Nancy reevaluating. But how, oh how, does one make marriage work with so much hiding, so much miscommunication under the bridge? To Whol’s credit, she doesn’t tie things up neatly.
Jane Alexander and James Cromwell are a well-matched pleasure to watch. Both exquisitely underplay in contrast to the younger generation, making many lines funnier. Both visibly brood and consider, alive on stage even when silent. The veterans offer dignity, credibility, ballast.
Director Leigh Silverman has a good sense of comic timing. Gestures and small stage business are excellent. Physical interaction is deft. (I’m surprised not to see listing for an intimacy director.) Taking down visually theatrical dramatics by Brian and Jess just a bit would serve.
Also featuring Patricia Lopez, who doesn’t listen sufficiently, as Carla.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Jane Alexander (Nancy) and James Cromwell (Bill)
Second Stage Theater presents
Grand Horizons by Bess Wohl
Directed by Leigh Silverman
The Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
Through March 1, 2020