To call “Grand Horizons” one of the brightest shows to hit Broadway in years is not to tout its intelligence, which flickers. Rather, I mean that it is blindingly lit, no doubt in deference to the theatrical wisdom that defines comedy as what dies in the dark.
And, boy, does “Grand Horizons” want to sell itself as comedy. Not witty comedy with its verbal arabesques, nor intellectual comedy with its Paris Review name-checks, nor meta-comedy with its scrambled plotlines — but the vanilla kind that once dominated commercial theater. It’s not entirely meant as praise to say that this Second Stage production is a big-laugh, blue-joke, bourgeois lark of the type Neil Simon mastered until the times mastered him and the genre petered out.
There’s a reason it did, and perhaps what the playwright Bess Wohl is attempting in “Grand Horizons,” which opened on Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theater, is a last-ditch act of reclamation: a boulevard comedy for a cul-de-sac age.
She has certainly furnished the play with all the original equipment. For starters, there’s the zingy premise: Over dinner one night, Nancy, a retired librarian approaching 80, turns to Bill, her husband of 50 years, and calmly announces that she wants a divorce. “All right,” he answers, continuing to eat as the audience roars.
That Nancy is played by Jane Alexander, and Bill by James Cromwell — both actors with heavy résumés — suggests something darker may be in store. So does the occasional sound of gunshots seeping through the thin walls of the cookie-cutter house in the retirement community that gives the play its sarcastic title. That noise turns out to be coming from a television next door; it is merely misdirection like “Grand Horizons” as a whole, whose lunge at gravitas is too little, too late.
At least in part, that’s because Wohl and the director, Leigh Silverman, so overplay the sitcom style at the start. Following Nancy’s declaration and Bill’s acquiescence, their sons, Ben and Brian, descend in a flurry of this-isn’t-happening hysteria. Ben (Ben McKenzie) is the stereotypical firstborn, overburdened and bossy; Brian (Michael Urie) the stereotypical baby, overindulged and whiny. Both insist that people so nearly dead as their parents have no business splitting up. “How much else even is there?” Ben sputters.
“Grand Horizons” is filled with thin jokes like that, the kind that do not hesitate to sell character reality up the river in exchange for a chuckle. Ben’s wife, Jess (Ashley Park), is a nonstop satire of touchy-feely therapists as seen less in life than in other plays; she urges her in-laws, who were never physically close, to begin the healing by holding hands. And Brian — especially in Urie’s by now predictable performance — is a tired burlesque of the dithery, narcissistic gay man who turns everything he touches into silly drama. Indeed, he’s a drama teacher, currently directing a school production of “The Crucible” that features 200 students.
The parents are more complexly written — and more compellingly acted — but even so, Nancy’s insistence that, after a loveless marriage, she deserves a chance at authentic joy is as often as not played for dirty-talking-old-lady laughs. Alexander, with her patrician aplomb, does this beautifully; you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a woman who once played Eleanor Roosevelt sing the praises of cunnilingus.
But not everything beautifully done makes sense beyond its immediate context, and often the context seems woefully contrived. Though Bill is a classic sourpuss, Wohl has him enroll in a stand-up comedy class at the recreation center — largely, it seems, to let him tell a great old joke about St. Peter welcoming four nuns to heaven. Cromwell underplays this, and everything else, as if to avoid setting off believability alarms.
Also taking the stand-up class is Carla (Priscilla Lopez), whose free-spiritedness, meant to show up Nancy’s primness, is mostly demonstrated by her wearing a garish scarf. (The costumes are by Linda Cho.) Alas, the scarf is merely a fuchsia herring; Carla is just like everyone else, getting big laughs with cute sex talk.
I could go on — there’s a mortifying scene in which Brian brings home a man for a hookup — but I have to remind myself that Wohl is in fact one of our cleverest playwrights, exploring the outer limits of naturalism in search of new ways of expressing new feelings. Both “Small Mouth Sounds” and “Make Believe,” which are as suggestive and shadowy as “Grand Horizons” is obvious and glary, were on recent Top 10 lists of mine.
Like them, “Grand Horizons” is perfectly structured, mimicking the classic works of stage comedy with a stupendous Act I curtain, a neat Act II surprise and a final beat that would be haunting if the road leading to it were not so littered with extorted laughs. Nor can the production, including that alarming lighting by Jen Schriever, be faulted; Silverman seems to have staged the play exactly as Wohl intended, stopping shy only of a laugh track to get the audience coughing up yuks.
But what is it Wohl really intends? She’s too serious a playwright to be trying to game the market — though “Grand Horizons,” with its pace, pedigree and cast of six, is likely to be performed in regional and amateur theaters for years. Nor do I think it is purely a botch, a mess that got that way by itself. The constraints of its genre are too bizarre not to have been chosen deliberately, just as Wohl deliberately constrained “Small Mouth Sounds” by setting it at a wordless spiritual retreat, and “Make Believe” by using the playacting of children as a medium for dramatizing mistreatment.
“Grand Horizons,” then, may be doing something similar. The genre that Simon buffed to a high polish in works like “Plaza Suite” — a three-part marriage farce that returns to Broadway this spring — was built on cracks in American confidence that by 1968, when the play had its premiere, were beginning to undermine faith in our fundamental institutions. Those cracks having now become chasms, Wohl can use the falseness of Simonesque stage comedy to dramatize the falseness of her real subject, which is not divorce but marriage. Nancy calls it a stray dog, a boa constrictor, a box you can’t claw your way out of: “Don’t respect it because God knows it doesn’t respect you.”
Unfortunately, her realization that she can no longer tell the requisite wifely lies — the ones that say her husband and children are infinitely excusable — comes too late in her life, as too late in the play. “The first part of love is truth,” she concludes.
If only it were the first part of “Grand Horizons” as well. That might have been genuinely funny.
Tickets Through March 1 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; 212-541-4516, 2st.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
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