Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
And so opens Bess Wohl's 2020 Tony-nominated Grand Horizons, a punchy, powerhouse comedy about marital malaise, now in a laugh-out-loud, smack-dab-scrumptious performance at San Jose Stage Company's The Stage.
Having settled into their upscale retirement community of Grand Horizons, Nancy and Bill French seem more than ready to end their near-half-century marriage, something that is freaking out their two sons and pregnant daughter-in-law when they arrive the next morning. That their parents have never fought, that they always finish each other's sentences, and that even now they still speak fondly of their first date lead their grown sons to frantically query, "Are you getting enough sleep? ... Are you drinking enough water? Is anyone ... putting the telephone in the fridge?" In the meantime, Bill pulls out a cardboard box, announcing, "I'm taking the toaster."
Wohl's brilliantly conceived script is a gem from beginning to end, directed to sow its every morsel of delight and to make hay of huge wallops of surprise by San Jose Stage veteran, award-winning actor, Alison F. Rich. If sons Brian and Ben are in stunned shock now, they need to hold onto their hats because it turns out much more has been going on in the background of their parents' supposedly "regular marriage" (Ben's description) that has never until today been revealed to either party, much less to the sons themselves. As the secrets come spilling out, it is the sons who are most falling apart, as visually evidenced by Ben's mounting attack of reddening eczema on both arms.
As the instigator of this family's 9.0 earthquake, Nancy is an overall picture of calm serenity. She watches Bill's packing with mild amusement, even at one point dutifully making him a sandwich as he gets ready to leave in his rented U-Haul. She describes their years of marriage in a matter-of-fact, this-is-the-way-it-was manner, "You divide things up over time ... He gets the soup ... I get the salad." Marriage for her has been something she says she just learned to live with, "like you do with a back pain." For now, her biggest fantasy is "I would like to have dinner alone in a restaurant."
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone's portrayal of Nancy is one for the books, with every line delivered with an emotional component engraved in her total countenance, her voice, and her stance/posture. She bristles at her grown children, "We don't want you here." She is stone-cold emphatic telling a son of his father, "I am not taking him back," even as she ho-hums, "I love him, but I am not in love with him." And she sparkles with visible, physical tingling as she describes what she was wearing when she once had dinner at a place "where the butter is shaped like roses" on a long-ago night that has continued to both silently sustain her spirit and haunt her memories for a near lifetime.
Nancy becomes proof that aging does not mean one cannot still take command on one's life to change and strike out anew; if it takes shocking to the core either or both sons who thought they knew her, so what? And shock she does with a tale full of words one might find written on a men's bathroom wall, staring straight at one son declaring, "I will be a whole person to you." Time and again, Lucinda Cone absolutely smashes a home run with the lines Bess Wohl has so generously provided her.
Impressive too is Julian López-Morillas as husband Bill. The quick acquiescence to his wife's sudden request for a late-life break-up followed by his bustling about to exit goes unexplained at first, but it becomes clearer that his career as a pharmacist–and maybe his marriage–has not proven for him to be all that fulfilling.
What Bill most wants in life is to be funny, something he is working on by taking stand-up comedy classes. What is funny is for us to watch how unfunny Bill is as he tries his best to be funny, totally bombing in front of his snack-munching family with a joke about nuns and their sex lives. Like his wife, Bill has some secrets that soon come to light, leading to a struggle that turns into all-out brawl over handing over his cell phone for his son's inspection. In Julian López-Morillas' Bill, we see masterfully portrayed versions of impishness, stubbornness and pathos as he too attempts to strike out on his own to find his version of a new life before turning 80.
The reactions of sons Ben and Brian to their parents' potential break-up go from disbelieving shock to near tearful pleas to eruptive explosions full of anger. A common thread for both is the negative effect this is having on their own lives, with each trying to outdo the other on the "poor-me" treadmill. Johnny Moreno's corporate lawyer Ben expresses the building tension not only via his fast-encroaching eczema but in arms and hands that dramatically punctuate in every direction and manner a mostly shouted volley of words as he prosecutes his parents' decisions and motives and elaborates on the devastating (and inconvenient) effects on him as son and key financial provider. His unrelenting poundings of points and drilling of questions about what a "regular marriage" should be increasingly leads his very pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Garlick) to begin to question the foundation of their own marriage.
Nick Mandracchia's Brian repeatedly melt downs into near puddles–episodes often hilarious in nature that alternate between his hurt and disappointment with his parents and that of his own lifetime of unfulfilled relationships. Further, he repeatedly bemoans parents and a brother who do not appreciate his career as a school drama teacher who is currently trying to cast 200 eager kids into a production of The Crucible. A late-night attempt to ease his own stress through a quick hook-up with a sexed-up, six-pack-stomached guy much younger and much hotter than he (Matthew Kropschot as Tommy) provides us much laughter while offering him another chance for a self-pity, meltdown moment.
Another appearance by a non-family member is made by Carla, who lives "over by the highway," played with sheer exuberance by Judith Miller. Carla drops in for only a few minutes for a reason to be revealed by seeing the play itself, but the impression she leaves is long-lasting for the audience. A self-proclaimed "doughnut freak" who volunteers to hold the hands of old folks in hospice care, Carla is no quiet wall flower. She shrieks loudly when talking normally, laughs constantly after whatever she last blurts out unabashedly, and shows in the end that while she clearly has a big heart, she is no fool. A full round of deserved applause goes to Judith Miller for the cameo appearance extraordinaire.
Together, Robert Pickering and Jenn Trampenau have respectively designed set and properties for a lovely condo-setting with fully functioning kitchen, comfy living room, and welcoming dining area. Brooke Jennings' costumes provide their takes on each character's personality and position in the script itself especially Tommy and Carla. Maurice Vercoutere's lighting design is excellent throughout, but takes a starring role (along with the sound design of Steve Schoenbeck) for the first act's ending moment of high drama and surprise.
Cheers are especially deserved for the musical selections as part of Steve Schoenbeck's sound design. The 1950s and '60s songs that Bill and Nancy must have listened to in their teen and dating years not only fill the air before and after the play's action but also between each of the scenes of both acts. Better yet, the selections ready us for what is about to happen. Wilson Pickett sings "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" and Richard Berry and the Pharaohs croon "You Are My Sunshine" just before the lights go up, fooling us into believing we are about to meet a happily married couple as they get ready to sit down for dinner. A sudden threat of Ben and Jess's relationship is introduced by Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move" while a fourth-wall-breaking scene is preceded by Smokey Robinson intoning the line, "People say I'm the life of the party," while Bill packs his boxes as he practices stand-up comedy lines. I frankly would like to return for another visit to Grand Horizons just to relish the well-positioned soundtrack.
Bess Wohl's Grand Horizons leads us on a journey that at first appears familiar and predictable but proves to be just as upending in its twists and turns as life so often is. A romantic comedy where romance is full of dysfunction and disappointment while still providing a possible path for refreshers and restarts, Grand Horizons provides all the fodder needed for San Jose Stage's director, cast, and creative team to dish up a totally fulfilling evening of laughter and even a couple of heartfelt tears.
Grand Horizons runs through April 30, 2023, at San Jose Stage Company, The Stage, 490 South 1st Street, San Jose CA. Fore tickets and information, please visit www.thestage.org or call 408-283-7142.