Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Grand Horizons

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 23, 2020

Grand Horizons by Bess Wohl. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Scenic design by Clint Ramos. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Jen Schriever. Sound design by Palmer Hefferan. Projection design by Bryce Cutler. Dramaturg Sarah Lunnie. Cast: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, Ben McKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park, and Michael Urie.
Theatre: Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Jane Alexander and James Cromwell
Photo by Joan Marcus
Take a trip back to the 1970s, when Norman Lear dominated the television airwaves with issues-oriented dramatic comedies like "All In The Family," "One Day At A Time," and "Maude." Combine that by dipping into the very popular women's health and sexuality book from that era, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Bess Wohl's new dramedy Grand Horizons, opening tonight at the Helen Hayes Theater.

The play is often quite funny in the way that a well-written sitcom can be, but a thick layer of jokes and punchlines cannot cover up the fact that there is little of credible substance here. This is true despite the occasional flare-up of a touchingly honest moment, and the fact that the central performances of a long-married couple on the verge of a breakup are played as persuasively as possible by a pair of accomplished veterans, Jane Alexander and James Cromwell.

Grand Horizons, whose title refers to a community of senior tract housing where it takes place, starts off in silence. Nancy (Ms. Alexander) and Bill (Mr. Cromwell) are engaged in a well-honed passive-aggressive dance as they prepare their dinner. He fills the glasses and puts them on the table; she comes around and rearranges them. She salts his food; he sneaks extra salt into his hand and then dumps it over his meal. All this goes on for a few minutes, until Nancy finally speaks up: "I think I would like a divorce." Bill's response: a calmly delivered "All right."

It does make for a perfect set-up to the inevitable who, what, where, when, and why that follow. It could make for a nice two-character play, but it has been extended to include the couple's grown children, their emotionally distraught gay son Brian (Michael Urie) and his steadier, more pragmatic older brother Ben (Ben McKenzie), along with Ben's pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park, who has been given entirely too little to do). The younger generation bring their own relationship problems with them, but mostly they try to focus on dissuading the parents from walking out on a marriage of 50 years.

Michael Urie
Photo by Joan Marcus
The theme, to the extent that it is explored, is that even though marriage is, as Nancy puts it, "a contract to be tied to each other's stupidity," older married couples are still two fully realized individuals with their own complicated mix of needs, hopes, and thwarted dreams. Over time, we gain a picture of a failed relationship and of unspoken secrets that never were really secret to begin with.

To get to this point, however, there are a lot of distractions along the way, including an interlude between Brian and a sexual pickup (Maulik Pancholy) he brings to the house late one night, and a visit from Carla, Bill's "floozy girlfriend" (apparently she and Bill sext one another). Carla is played by Priscilla Lopez, who single-handedly brightens up the proceedings with her exquisite comic timing until she exits much too soon. We also get to sit through Nancy's detailed description to her son Brian of a long-ago sexual experience. It's a lovely piece of writing that allows a woman to reclaim the word "pussy" from its current ugly politicized usage, but you can decide for yourself whether you think this is a likely mother-to-son topic of conversation.

All told, Grand Horizons sacrifices what could be a serious examination of an aging couple in a crumbling marriage in order to set up some admittedly funny lines and situations. It also stretches things out unnecessarily by bringing in extraneous or, at least, underdeveloped characters. It makes me wonder if we might be seeing a promo or pilot for a television sitcom in which we might, over time, get to see the play's central theme explored in greater depth. For now, however, the enterprise is wading in very shallow waters.