Airlessness in the theater is usually a problem. We’re annoyed when a drama seems self-contained and tidy. But in Bess Wohl’s sparkling Broadway debut Grand Horizons, sterility is a feature, not a bug. Wohl’s subject is hollowness — in marriages, particularly, but also in modern life, where purpose comes as an afterthought.
To examine the human comedy, Wohl looks at retirement, the phase when (for those who can afford it) life is distilled and clarified. Without the obvious drivers of work and children, existence whittles down to the simplest possible question: What do you want? We meet Nancy (Jane Alexander) and Bill (James Cromwell) in their decorator’s-white, generic “independent living” private residence, one of a hundred identical such bungalows in the senior community Grand Horizons. (The script says, “It’s all contained in a box. The box is a house.”) In the show’s first instant, Nancy has just worked out an answer to that crucial question. “I think,” she says calmly over dinner, “I would like a divorce.” Bill, revealing the kind of Mr. Ed personality that would drive a woman out of her 50-year marriage, says, “All right.”
Little bitty spark, short fuse — and the rest of the play is the explosion. Nancy and Bill’s grown sons show up, busy and determined, ready to fix this and to figure out what’s going on. Ben (Ben McKenzie) and his heavily pregnant wife Jess (the comic supernova Ashley Park) have some plans: He’s the organizer/lawyer type, with a hazy grip on the emotions of the moment; she’s an actual therapist, who manages to get the pair to hold hands for the first time in ages. (Cromwell manages to make his entire, six-and-a-half-foot body imply “ugh.”) The artsy son Brian (Michael Urie) keeps making the situation all about him, though Wohl isn’t sure that perhaps, in a small way, he isn’t right. Everyone in his family shies away from Brian’s gayness, his theater teaching (he’s so proud he got 200 kids into his version of The Crucible), and his emotionality. So while even a random hookup (Maulik Pancholy) can diagnose Brian’s galaxy-sized selfishness, Brian is right that his dismissal is somehow related to the way his parents have grown cold to each other.
There are two foolproof comedy generators in Leigh Silverman’s production. No. 1: Jane Alexander cussing. Alexander is super-elegant. (You can sense from her stage presence that she was, for real, the chair of the NEA under Clinton.) Linda Cho costumes Nancy in beiges and diaphanous pink scarves—she’s a Wasp painted by Fragonard—but Nancy keeps cracking the façade. She shouts at a noisy neighbor with profane confidence; she confesses a long-ago affair in yonic detail. This leads us to comic strategy No. 2: Horrifying Michael Urie. His catalogue of reactions — shocked face, confused-but-still-listening face, the full-throated scoff, shaking information off like a wet dog, silent prayer — is a magician’s bag from which he draws and draws and never comes up empty. Obviously, Bess Wohl is a professional, and she no doubt wrote this play before it went into rehearsal. But surely she added extra tortures just to make Urie freak out? Nancy tells Brian about one of her sexual experiences, and Urie tries to push the actual words back at her, soundwave by soundwave. It’s delicious.
Ben and Brian certainly don’t want to think of their parents being, in any way, carnal. But beyond that, they’re baffled that any desires — libidinal or otherwise — exist inside their parents. Ben can’t believe they’re impinging on his clearly more important life. “You’re almost 80,” he says. “Like, how much else — even is there?” Wohl has written a Broadway comedy, so it’s not really her job to come up with an answer to estrangement, aging, death-in-life, malaise. But she comes up with some small gestures, like breaking out of your box (Bill takes this to an extreme degree) and staying alert to the ongoing humanity of people — even the 80-year-olds — around you. To this, the meticulously constructed production contributes its own object lessons. Set designer Clint Ramos, for instance, has decorated Nancy’s home with a wistful reference to the way she feels unseen. A lover once noticed some freckles on her back that line up perfectly — but Bill, in a lifetime of seeing her naked, never did. So Nancy decorates in groups. One wall has a line of copper pots, another has a line of dried flower bunches. Maybe they’ll remind Bill of something. People always talk about how the house has no personality, but it does contain this quiet little call for help. It’s there if you look for it.
You also want to pay close attention when a playwright has a character tell a joke. Those sneaky dickens like to smuggle parables in that way. So what does it mean that Bill, a guy pointedly not talking about the way he still loves his wife, is taking a stand-up comedy class at the senior center? Is it simply that he met the vivacious Carla (Priscilla Lopez) there? Bill tells his joke. It’s not great. It involves nuns. But once we think of Bill as a guy doing stand-up, a lot of the digs he takes at his own marriage suddenly sound more like stale take-my-wife-please formulations. We start to wonder if comedy itself — as we sit here laughing — is the language we use to talk ourselves out of our own best interests.
There’s another thing you might notice, though. All the people who orbit in to teach the white family how to live and laugh and love are played by actors of color. It’s easy to see why Silverman and Second Stage would want to ensure that the cast, once they’d decided on a white central family, was diverse, and Pancholy, Park, and Lopez are all comic heavy-hitters. Each of those casting decisions, examined individually, is a great one. But taken together, the choices accidentally create a world in which white people are helped by wise, more physically in-touch-with-themselves brown people. I give that only one eek out of a possible five — but it does get an eek.
For the most part, though, Grand Horizons is a sweet, sweet delight. It’s carefully made, beautifully acted, and extremely funny, while also asking a few tart questions about comedy itself. I suppose you have to ask yourself (as do Nancy and Bill), What do I want? Is it a silly play in a rough week? Is it a take-your-life-back-at-any-age narrative? Is it a prickly, slow-moving romance between treasures of the stage Jane Alexander and James Cromwell? For myself, I discovered that I just want to watch Michael Urie get increasingly appalled. It will obviously be socially awkward to pursue that particular pleasure in future, so for now, I’m happy to have this show.
Grand Horizons is at the Helen Hayes Theater.