Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of The Wild Party
That two-sentence exchange lights the fuse on a domestic comedy that has the feel of a TV sitcom from the 1980s or 1990s. As the lights come up for the second scene, Bill and Nancy's two adult sons–fidgety, anxious Brian (Nick Cearley) and overbearing Ben (Jared Joplin)–and Jess, Ben's family-therapist wife (Shonita Joshi), are doing their noisy best to interrogate their parents and futilely impose a course correction.
The intervention is played with lots of jokey one-liners. Bill, who's been attending a comedy class, tells a very off-color joke about nuns meeting St. Peter at Heaven's Gate. Despite the laughter that ensues, the sons' underlying fear of change is palpable. Jess's pat suggestions–including holding hands and saying how she would prefer to be touched–have gotten no traction. Gunshots ring out and the sons dive for cover. It's quickly revealed that the next-door neighbor in the Grand Horizons senior living community repeatedly has her TV on too loud while watching police procedurals. It's a false alarm, almost a metaphor for Wohl's storytelling, which uses misdirection for the sake of laughs to cover pain.
Overtly gay Brian comes in after a night out bringing Tommy (Dan Davidson), a studly pickup. But their encounter goes nowhere, derailed by Brian's obsession with his parents' decision. Once Tommy storms out, Nancy comes downstairs and begins a frank conversation with Brian about her dissatisfaction with a passionless marriage. She recalls in graphic detail a sexual relationship with a teenage boyfriend while Brian hides his face and squirms beneath a blanket. It's funny, but it shows how a woman who spent her life as a prim, restrained librarian has yearned for a different kind of relationship. Her desire is something that Bill has apparently never understood or addressed.
Bill's ignorance is underscored when he and son Ben have a blustering encounter. Bill claims he has no idea what Nancy wants, and Ben is furious that the family's supposedly calm surface has been a façade. It becomes apparent that Bill has withheld information. Jess tries to intercede, only to reveal that her marriage with Ben has some turbulence of its own.
In the second act, Nancy is joined by Carla (Deb G. Girdler), who has come to collect Bill to move in with her. The women's revealing exchange is enlightening for both of them. Another explosion involving the whole family leads to the second generation's departure. An ensuing extended and truthful conversation between Bill and Nancy hints at some enlightenment and perhaps rapprochement. Although open-ended, it appears to be a promising next step founded on better communications.
If all of this seems to echo the rise and fall of televised humor from a few decades back, that seems to be precisely what playwright Wohl had in mind. Grand Horizon's message is ultimately more about the pitfalls and rewards of marriage than the fact of divorce. It's an interesting turn for a show that spends more time evoking shrieks of laughter from the audience than the probing insights that come in the second act.
That unevenness is compensated for by a sterling cast. Hodges and Joneal Joplin, Cincinnati theater veterans, have performed together more than a dozen times, and their exchanges–both silent and spoken–have the ring of truth. New York-based Cearley had a memorable solo comic turn in Jonathan Tolins' Buyer and Cellar at Ensemble in 2015, and his manic portrait of Brian, an overly dramatic drama teacher (who's staging a high school production of The Crucible with 200 kids), is finely tuned. As older son Ben, Jared Joplin (yes, he's playing the show's first-born to his actor father) comes on a tad too strong in their angry confrontations. Joshi, as Ben's immensely pregnant wife (her "baby bump" prosthetic seems way too large), brings the right tone of well-intended if clichéd reason and restrained frustration to her performance. Davidson's and Girdler's one-scene individual appearances facilitate further understanding of the family's characters.
Guest director Brian Robertson, a theater faculty member at Northern Kentucky University, has staged Grand Horizons with a swift, steady hand. Brian c. Mehring's design of a pleasant but institutional retirement home has a plainness that subtly reinforces the octogenarians' ennui about their recent move to more constrained quarters.
This production is sure to entertain audiences. It's possible that it will cause them to look at their own relationships more closely.
Grand Horizons runs through February 5, 2023, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit www.ensemblecincinnati.com or call 513-421-3555.