In just the first minutes of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,” a supremely funny comedy of marital malaise presented by Second Stage Theater, Jane Alexander and James Cromwell deliver a miniature master class in the art of slyly ambiguous acting — without so much as speaking a word.
Lunch is being readied, and while Alexander’s Nancy serves up the food, with a precision that suggests years of similar preparations, Cromwell’s Bill pours out the Crystal Light and makes final adjustments at the table. But does the silence that reigns between them connote contentment or hostility? Is it born of a companionable familiarity or boredom?
Then Wohl detonates a bombshell that sends this rollicking play, as uproarious as it is compassionate and wise, on its unexpected trajectory. As they dig into their meal, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce — as placidly as if she’s discussing whether she and Bill should attend a bingo night. After a burst of laughter from the audience has subsided, Bill just as casually agrees to end their marriage.
And then they continue to eat their mashed potatoes, having settled matters with just two clipped phrases.
A tale of divorce is more likely to elicit a yawn than a raised eyebrow these days, but Nancy and Bill would appear to have moved well beyond the fraught years of most marriages: the early trials of living together as well as the empty-nest and middle-aged-angst passages. They are living in the retirement community that gives the play its title, and are near-octogenarians with almost half a century of marriage behind them.
Unsurprisingly, Bill and Nancy’s two sons, Ben (Ben McKenzie) and Bill (Michael Urie), along with Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Ashley Park), come racing home in various states of astonishment and dismay, to discover what could have taken place to warrant such an astounding decision. Has one of them developed dementia or Alzheimer’s? (No, we learn, when Nancy delivers a hilariously tart jest.)
Their children discover, above all, how very unastounded both Nancy and Bill are at the mutual agreement they have seemingly so offhandedly undertaken. Nancy and Bill parry all inquiries with a patience that only further inflames curiosity, and eventually reveal the seams that have frayed, the bonds that have snapped, the old frustrations that have grown into rock-solid resentments, the secrets that festered.
Dramas, and comedies, of unhappy marriages are, of course, practically the bread and butter of American theater. (And they stretch beyond borders and predate the rise of American drama in the early 20th century, going back to Strindberg at least.) What makes “Grand Horizons” feel so lively is not the simple sum of its sometimes familiar parts, but how ingeniously Wohl takes those dusty puzzle pieces and fits them together to create a fresh-feeling, 21st-century portrait of a couple at odds and the fallout from their decision to part ways.
The cast, under the superbly articulate direction of Leigh Silverman, is a beautifully tight-knit ensemble, and includes the veteran Priscilla Lopez, who appears in just one scene and, to the pleasure of all, neatly wraps it up, pops it in her crisply funny character’s purse (metaphorically speaking) and makes off with it.
But it is Alexander, whose Nancy sets the churning emotional waters in motion, who provides the play with its most rewarding and often surprising elements. She is a revered stage actor of long standing, of course, winning her first Tony Award in 1969 for “The Great White Hope.” But she has largely staked her claim to immortality in more soberly dramatic material, and has always exuded an almost patrician elegance.
Yes, that commanding elegance remains, but here Alexander gets to playfully explode our expectations of her, giving a performance of such sublimely delicate comic timing that you would think she had spent years honing her chops on the standup stage. With this endlessly endearing performance she proves, in keeping with the arc of her character, that people of any age are capable of change and renewal and, yes, providing a jolting shock or two.
Among the most memorable moments in the play is Nancy’s recollection of the pleasure she experienced when a man she once loved gave her — well, not flowers, as Bill hopefully, or rather desperately, suggests. I have to confess I used to find the trope of older women talking bawdily about sex to be among the more crass sources of humor; with a few more years of experience (and — sue me! — a latecoming appreciation of “The Golden Girls”), I realize how obtuse that attitude was. Among the most rewarding aspects of “Grand Horizons” is how it illuminates the truth that growing old does not necessarily mean a loss of desire — for pleasures sexual or sensual, or merely the freedom to strike out for new pastures.
Cromwell’s performance is as superb as Alexander’s. Although it is Nancy who makes the first move, Bill’s quick acquiescence speaks for itself. After a long career as a pharmacist, Bill has found a new passion: a desire to perform comedy. Surely one of the greatest acting challenges must be to be non-funny while your character is trying to be funny — or maybe being funny at not being funny. Cromwell nails this tightrope act perfectly, and while Bill is the antithesis of the heart-on-sleeve-wearer, Cromwell also beautifully renders the layers of yearning (and the layers of regret) that have made Bill, like Nancy, feel that life has somehow passed him by.
I hesitate to delineate the contours of the plot in much detail, since the play’s charms, as well as its most affecting passages, often derive from the unexpected revelations that Nancy and Bill confess to their children. (I can’t resist, however, a non-spoiling shout-out to the punchy ending of the first act — one of the most startling, um, entrances I’ve ever seen at the theater, or do I mean exits?)
What I can say is how perfectly the rest of the cast reveal how this eruption of family drama upends their emotional equilibrium, as they are forced to confront the discovery that their long-held assumptions about their parents’ marriage may have been founded on illusions, that the truth of the marriage was far more complicated than they had assumed.
Urie’s Billy is the most obviously tossed into a state of unhappy bewilderment. He’s having trouble at work (he’s a school drama teacher who’s — hilariously! — trying to squeeze as many kids into a production of “The Crucible” as possible), and is emerging from the latest in a series of unfulfilling relationships. Urie’s gift for melting down, and his gift for physical comedy, are on delightful display in the scene in which Bill drags home from a bar a young man (the terrific Maulik Pancholy) for an evening of let-me-forget-my-life sex. It doesn’t go well.
McKenzie’s Ben, a lawyer who has long been financially helping his parents out, and thus (perhaps selfishly) feels he has been getting somehow played, is by turns sympathetic and exasperated. McKenzie’s confrontation with Bill over allegations of his father’s infidelity marks another scene that is both painfully funny and just painful. Although her role is fairly small, Park, whose character is a therapist, is both amusing and sympathetic as Ben’s wife; her witnessing of his parents’ suddenly fractured marriage makes her, understandably, begin to question the durability of her own.
“Grand Horizons” is that rare animal, a smart but crowd-friendly Broadway comedy, one that does not pander to the audience, and finds twisty new paths through familiar pastures. At its heart it’s as much a romantic comedy as it is a tale of that familiar familial fear, dysfunction. The last few moments are as ambiguous as the first, reminding us that age may bring the waning of hope, passion, love, but might also allow for the rekindling of any — or all — of them.
“Grand Horizons” opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Jan. 23, 2020.
Creative: Written by Bess Wohl; Directed by Leigh Silverman; Scenic Design by Clint Ramos; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Jen Schriever; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Projection Design by Bryce Cutler.
Producers: Second Stage Theater.
Cast: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, Ben McKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park and Michael Urie.