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The opening scene of rising star Bess Wohl’s wickedly funny Grand Horizons is a masterpiece of simplicity. In a generic, pastel cookie-cutter home, an elderly couple, Nancy (Jane Alexander) and Bill (James Cromwell), are sitting down for tea. They both move slowly, saying nothing, their daily, dull routine instantly clear. “I think I would like a divorce,” Nancy announces peacefully. “All right,” Bill calmly responds as they continue doing what little they were doing.
Wohl’s hysterical Broadway debut follows such terrific shows as Make Believe, in which four young siblings are forced to take care of one another in their attic when their mother disappears; Small Mouth Sounds, which takes place at a silent meditation retreat where participants form a kind of temporary family; and Continuity, about the making of an action movie involving climate change in which the cast and crew function like a dysfunctional family.
News of the impending divorce brings Nancy and Bill’s thunderstruck children rushing home to talk them out of it. The practical, workaholic Ben (Ben McKenzie) arrives with his pregnant wife, therapist Jess (Ashley Park), while Brian (Michael Urie) shows up alone, as he often does. A gay theater teacher, Brian is directing a cast of two hundred kids in a high school production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But Nancy, a former librarian, and Bill, a pharmacist who now wants to be a stand-up comic, seem set on their decision, and as secrets emerge, Ben and Brian find themselves questioning everything they ever knew about their parents as they refuse to believe their mother and father can be serious.
“I thought it was kind of a good sign,” Ben says when Nancy and Bill appear to go to bed together, in the same room. “Sure, if you block out the part where they barely spoke to each other. And then your mom pretended to have dementia. And then your dad told a dick joke,” Jess responds. “No, I know, it’s insane, they’re children,” Ben acknowledges. The changing of places between the parents and the kids is at the heart of Grand Horizons. Brian brings back a one-night stand, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy), who becomes annoyed when Brian hesitates because of his family situation. “Lots of parents get divorced,” Tommy says. “It sucks when you’re like, eight. But you seem pretty middle-aged.” A moment later, Tommy explains, “They’re adults. They can do whatever the fuck they want.” To which Brian replies, “Are you kidding? Adults cannot do what they want. . . . The defining feature of adulthood is that you never get to do what you want. Children do what they want. Adults struggle to meet the needs of other people. Make a living. Satisfy a thousand obligations. And still fall short and wind up disappointing everyone.”
Wohl was inspired to write a play about gray divorce after some of her friends’ parents called it quits later in life, including director Leigh Silverman’s, after their fiftieth anniversary. (At one point, a distraught Ben declares, “I if you wanted to get divorced, you should have done it after we went to college, like normal people.”) Tearing down conceptions and expectations about sex, intimacy, and aging, Wohl (American Hero, Touched) and Silverman (Harry Clarke, In the Wake) share a keen sense of humor even as things get very serious. After Nancy makes a crack, the endlessly dreary and dour Bill opines, “What is she joking for? I’m the funny one. I’ve always been the funny one.”
The ensemble cast, which also features Priscilla Lopez as a dentist office receptionist who also is trying to be a comedian, is in sync every step of the way; they seem to be having just as much fun as we are in the audience, relishing their antics on Clint Ramos’s pristine set (well, pristine until the end of the first act). Tony winner and Oscar nominee Alexander (The Great White Hope, The Sisters Rosensweig) and Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Cromwell (Babe, American Horror Story: Asylum) are exceptional as the divorcing couple driving a knife through their sons’ memories; it is a special treat watching them work together onstage, their years of experience taking the relationship between Nancy and Bill to another level. McKenzie (Gotham, The O.C.) and Urie (Torch Song, The Government Inspector) do a good job keeping pace with them as they occasionally bicker like an old married couple themselves.
I have to admit to a personal bias when it comes to Alexander. When I was a teenager, a friend and I were so excited to see her and Henry Fonda in First Monday in October on Broadway that we waited around to talk to her after the show. She appreciated our interest and invited us back to her apartment for tea, which I of course thought of when she makes tea in the first scene of Grand Horizons. That experience encouraged my love of theater and was one of the seminal moments that led me to the cherished responsibility of writing about the stage all these years later.