Even before the great James Cromwell arrives at the punchline of a decrepit dirty nun joke, or the incomparable Jane Alexander gets to a vibrator bit exhausted seasons ago by Grace and Frankie, Bess Wohl’s affable, unremarkable marriage comedy Grand Horizons has its “something borrowed” locked down. The “something new,” on the other hand…
Opening tonight (at the Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater) in a spit-shined and smartly cast Broadway production directed by Leigh Silverman, Grand Horizons moves with a confidence that comes close to convincing. You’ll root for it even while you’re trying to place where, exactly, you’ve seen each scenario before.
Alexander and Cromwell play a comfortably retired couple who, after 50 years, suddenly decide to call an end to the bland, bored, practiced routine of their mostly silent marriage. “I think I would like a divorce,” says Alexander’s Nancy, capping a nicely choreographed, entirely wordless opening vignette in which she and husband Bill set a dinner table for two with the precision of an expensive timepiece.
“All right,” responds the resigned-to-life Bill. And that’s that.
Except, of course, it’s not. Their adult sons (Michael Urie, Ben McKenzie) react with enough flabbergasted, over-the-top hysteria to embarrass the average sitcom teen. “Is anyone feeling anxious or sad or scared?” demands the excitable gay son Brian (Urie), seeking answers. “Is anyone forgetting things, or, like, putting the telephone in the fridge?”
Elder son Ben (McKenzie), the responsible, lawyerly one, tries reason: “If you wanted to get divorced you should have done it after we went to college, like normal people.” Ben’s well-meaning therapist wife Jess (Ashley Park) suggests role-play and hand-holding as a potential solution.
Revelations arrive in due time, none particularly unforeseen or unforeseeable, most being of the parents-like-sex-too variety. One of the bigger laughs arrives when Alexander’s seemingly prim Nancy uses a vulgar term for oral sex (prompting Urie’s Brian to plug his ears and scream in horror – no Grace and Frankie fan he).
Perhaps director Silverman (The Lifespan of a Fact) pushes her cast to such occasional extremes to compensate for the dearth of surprises in Wohl’s first Broadway play (a dearth, not an absence: a truly big jolt won’t be spoiled here, but kudos to the reliable scenic designer Clint Ramos for some terrific, discombobulating fun with the cookie-cutter assisted living setting).
No doubt Wohl and her play have an appealing, compassionate spirit (first on displayed in the playwright’s well-received Off Broadway plays American Hero and Small Mouth Sounds), and that goes a long way: Grand Horizons (the title is the name of Bill and Nancy’s senior community) is a comfortable, comforting entertainment, its jokes more funny than not, its performances, by and large, expert. Alexander and Cromwell are marvels, pros elevating their material with subtlety and bring-it-home delivery.
Urie, even when directed to extremes, commands the stage with a comic panache that’s only grown since his well-received starring role in 2018’s Torch Song, and Park (Mean Girls) lifts a familiar touchy-feely therapist role to something more unexpected.
In his Broadway debut, McKenzie, who’s done exceptional work over the years on TV’s Southland and Gotham, almost keeps pace with his more stage-experienced cast mates, as faint-praisey as that sounds. In much smaller but nicely diverting roles, Maulik Pancholy (as Brian’s one-night-stand) and a scene-stealing Priscilla Lopez (as an aging single lady who might once have been called a fun girl) brighten things considerably.
Best efforts and a sweet heart notwithstanding, Grand Horizons falls short of its expansive title. The promising Wohl has something of value in her sights, a generosity that wants nothing but the best for her disappointed characters that almost, but only almost, comes into focus in her Broadway debut.
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