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Theatre in Review: Grand Horizons (Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theatre)

James Cromwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The prolific and gifted Bess Wohl is at it again. This season alone, she has given us Continuity, a knowing (and disturbing) comedy about moviemaking and climate change, and Make Believe, a creepy and occasionally riotous tale about abandoned children who grow up into full-fledged basket cases. Like the latter, Grand Horizons is another jaundiced family dustup, but this time, Wohl is interested in how a single seismic incident can fan out from one generation to the next, spreading chaos in its wake. Aided by the director, Leigh Silverman, who has one of the lightest touches around, and an exceptionally agile cast, Wohl's exercise in emotional mayhem delivers a steady supply of wicked laughter.

Silverman perfectly orchestrates the nearly silent opening sequence in which Nancy and Bill, married for fifty years, prepare their dinner. It's a dance as carefully choreographed as anything by Alexei Ratmansky. Note how Jane Alexander, as Nancy, ladles gravy on mashed potatoes with such a symphony conductor's flourish, or how James Cromwell, as Bill, surreptitiously -- and heavily -- salts his meal. It's a marital minuet -- they even circle the table, him placing a back support on her chair, before taking their places. Their concentration is total; they barely seem to notice each other, yet every movement is rendered in total harmony -- or so it appears. Then Nancy, looking up, says, "I think I would like a divorce." "All right," Bill replies.

Well, the road out of love never did run smooth. Descending on their home -- as per the title, it is in one of those senior living communities with inappropriately august names -- are Nancy and Bill's aghast offspring: the overworked Ben and the frantic, semi-hysterical Brian. To say that Brian feels disrespected by his loved ones would be putting it mildly. "I happen to be under a lot of stress right now. At work," he announces, suggesting that his parents are pushing him over the edge. Bill, skeptically, says, "Work? Aren't you a theatre teacher?"

Jess, Ben's wife, a very pregnant therapist, applies her best professional manner to this domestic cold war, to little avail. (She insists that Nancy and Bill aren't her patients, but her tone of voice suggests otherwise.) Trying to broker an entente cordiale, she says, "What if we start the conversation by talking about some happy memories? I was saying to Ben, in the car on the way down here, I don't think I've ever heard about your very first date." This cues furious looks and a cascade of complaints that haven't dimmed over several decades. (It was spoiled by freezing rain; also, Nancy ordered a steak and Bill had to pick up the check.)

Ben, a lawyer, tries reasoning with them, but his approach falters when Bill announces, "She's the one who brought up this whole divorce thing, not me. I would have just slogged it out." Little wonder that Ben is going to regret that he forgot his eczema medicine. Indeed, the older generation is implacable: Nancy intends to dedicate her life to rounding up clothes from recently deceased residents of Grand Horizons and donating them to global refugees; Bill, a retired pharmacist, is working on a new career in stand-up comedy: By way of demonstration, he tells a spectacularly dirty (and hilarious) joke about nuns, holy water, and various sex acts.

The chaos that informs Grand Horizons is triggered largely by an outbreak of candor in a household that never has had any use for it. Ben and Brian are staggered to learn that their parents' marriage was apparently built on a foundation of rancor: Was everything in their childhoods a lie? The news spills over into their lives, exposing fault lines in Ben and Jess' relationship and shining a harsh light on Brian's train wreck of a personal life. It's a situation that could have quickly become grating, but, thanks to Wohl's nimble, magpie wit and her pitch-perfect cast, one easily develops a sneaking affection for this mixed-up crew.

Alexander, speaking in a slightly breathless voice and looking every inch the martyr, makes Nancy an amusingly discomfiting presence; hers is the reasonableness that drives men mad. Brian, lashing out at Bill, says, "The fact that you spent your whole life at work is probably half the reason we're having this insane conversation about splitting up in the first place." "Or maybe it's why we never had it sooner," Nancy suggests, sending her son into another tailspin. Stopping Bill before he walks out the door, she offers to make him a peanut butter sandwich, turning the effort into an exercise in comic precision, closing the baggie as carefully as someone tucking away a sacred relic. Whatever storms are gusting around her, she remains a deadpan delight.

Cromwell's Bill, barking out insults, rehearsing his failing routine, and quietly admitting that, for half a century, Nancy has had the upper hand, is a fine foil, no more so than when husband and wife settle down for the conversation they should have had sometime during the Nixon Administration. Michael Urie turns Brian's barely suppressed panic into pure farce, especially when Nancy, deciding that one of her sons should really know her, shares the graphic details of a long-ago affair. He also strikes gold when Brian explains how to get two hundred students into a production of The Crucible. His work goes a long way toward making a potentially overdrawn character seem likable and authentically lost.

Also: Ashley Park, marshalling armadas of strategic smiles and smoothly modulated tones, enlists her considerable comic skills as Jess, whose professional approach is of little use here; she also has a spectacular meltdown when overtaken by panic at the thought of impending motherhood. Ben McKenzie charts Ben's step-by-step breakdown, climaxing in the realization that he may be repeating his parents' mistakes. In the play's most questionable scene, Maulik Pancholy has fun as Brian's frisky, brainless pickup, who has a taste for baroque role-play. The ever-delightful Priscilla Lopez brilliantly goes toe-to-toe with Alexander as Carla, Nancy's possible replacement, who quickly realizes she may be getting much more than she bargained for.

Silverman has gotten an inventive design from Clint Ramos, whose cookie-cutter retirement villa interior figures in a spectacular gag that rings down the curtain on the first act. Bryce Cutler's projections provide overhead views of the community, a kind of Levittown for the aged. Linda Cho's costumes are niftily done -- note the differences between Nancy and Carla's wardrobes -- as are Jen Schriever's lighting and Palmer Hefferan's sound.

Throughout Grand Horizons, Wohl balances hilarity with an awareness that her characters have, to a greater or lesser degree, led stunted lives -- and whether it is too late for them is anyone's guess. It's a kind of high-wire act, producing a comedy that is both highly entertaining and bracingly honest. The latter quality is everything, as Nancy comes to realize: "It's better to be truthful, I think. I think maybe truth is the first part of love." It's a case the playwright makes with uncommon persuasiveness. -- David Barbour


(5 February 2020)

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