Review of Second Stage Theater's Grand Horizons on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    January 24, 2020
    Review by:

    A comedy on Broadway, especially one that revolves around seniors who’ve been married for 50 years--portrayed by the likes of Jane Alexander and James Cromwell, no less--is such a rarity that it deserves some applause for even trying.

    Clap. Clap.

    But Grand Horizons actually needed to try harder, since the view from the audience seat is, unfortunately, more seen-this-before bland than grand. Even if there are two bright and irresistible stars leading the way.

    Too bad, since the play is by Bess Wohl, a writer whose Off-Broadway plays about relationships Small Mouth Sounds and Make Believe were the product of the mind of an imaginative and idiosyncratic author. 

    Wohl’s Broadway debut at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater comes up short in terms of those admirable, embraceable traits. It tells a familiar mainstream story spiked with f-bombs and anatomical slang. Jane Alexander, a Tony winner and an Oscar nominee just said the p-word! Moments like that feel more forced than natural--just for the laugh.

    The setting is a home in the titular retirement community where every house is exactly alike and the interior is appointed in Everyday Contemporary Cliche. It’s the lair of Nancy (Alexander, witty and full of pith) and Bill (Cromwell, endearingly grumpy), who open the play amid a silent mealtime routine they’ve played out a million times. Same old, same old. And then, she speaks. “I think I would like a divorce.” And he speaks. “All right.”

    Over and done. It’s all so perfunctory, it’s like the end of a not particularly tasty or memorable meal. Check, please.

    Hold on, holler their adult sons Brian (Michael Urie, delightfully high-strung), a gay high school drama teacher, and Ben (Ben McKenzie, of "Gotham" and "The O.C."), an attorney with a pregnant wife, Jess, (Ashley Park, reliably piquant), a family therapist getting some practice close to home. Extramarital revelations by both Nancy and Bill only make things more chaotic.

    Precisely what Wohl is chasing remains elusive. Maybe it’s that within cookie-cutter condos, every family is nutty and poor at communicating in their own way. Perhaps it’s that kids are never ready for Mom and Dad to split. It could be a riff on a trusted rom-com trope that coming apart can be what it takes to stay together, as the script strives for late-in-the-game poignance. Choose one, or all three. They’re all pretty familiar storylines.

    The actors assembled by director Leigh Silverman are all pretty terrific. And there are funny moments. Some of them arise from situations, some are actual punchlines. Bill, an ex-pharmacist, is a wannabe stand-up comic. There are pangs of bittersweetness. “I lived my entire life that way--no splash--no impact,” says Nancy, who takes stock and is determined to have a life that matters.

    There are also yawns, including old news about vibrators by Carla (a perky Priscilla Lopez), who’s grown too close for comfort with Bill. Maulik Panchauly rounds out the cast as Tommy, a guy Brian brings home for a romp that ends up being a let-down.

    The same goes for the amiable but unmemorable Grand Horizons. Check, please.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "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."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Grand Horizons is not especially profound, and its women are written more fully than its men. But in Leigh Silverman’s production for Second Stage, the gifted cast—which also includes Maulik Pancholy as Brian’s would-be hookup and Priscilla Lopez as a blowsy neighbor—keeps the energy high."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Grand Horizons has an identity problem. It aims to be both funny like a sitcom and poignant like a perceptive drama, and while it strains credulity at times, thanks to impeccable acting led by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell, the play’s forced marriage of humor and pathos does have its moments."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Second Stage Theater seems to be single-handedly attempting to revive the boulevard comedy on Broadway. There was a time when the Great White Way was dominated by such middlebrow, mass-appeal fare, with the late, great Neil Simon as the chief avatar of the genre. Just months after staging Tracy Letts’ genial comedy Linda Vista, Second Stage has mounted Bess Wohl’s broadly entertaining Grand Horizons."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "It's a particular pleasure to see seven-time Tony nominee (and winner in 1969 for The Great White Hope) Alexander and Cromwell making belated returns to the New York stage after decades-long absences. The distinguished performers deliver cannily understated, sardonically funny turns."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter