(l to r) Jane Alexander and James Cromwell in ‘Grand Horizons.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bickering families are nothing new. They’ve been fodder for kitchen sink dramas since the invention of the kitchen sink. Bess Wohl’s sharply written Grand Horizons doesn’t innovate the form, but thanks to a savvy cast and deft direction by Leigh Silverman, this expanse of theatrical highway manages to dodge doldrum.
After decades of marriage, Nancy (Jane Alexander) tells her husband Bill (James Cromwell) that she’d like a divorce. Their sons, Ben (Ben McKenzie) and Brian (Michael Urie, not unlike his character in Torch Song), are none too happy to see the glasshouse shatter. They descend upon their parents’ retirement community (aptly named Grand Horizons) for damage control, with Ben’s very pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park) in tow. Brief appearances by Maulik Pancholy as one of Brian’s one-night-stands gone wrong, and Priscilla Lopez as Bill’s “other woman,” offer respite from the family unit’s spinning hamster wheel.
A volley of expected characterizations ensue. Bill appears emotionally unavailable. Nancy, firm in her decision to move on, deflects her children’s concerns — Ben being the pragmatic, financially stable one, while Brian (an acting teacher) the more emotionally intuitive. Jess chimes in, on occasion, wielding her professional expertise as a therapist to offer her two cents on the dissolving family. It feels mostly expected, though entertaining to listen to thanks to Wohl’s witty turns of phrase.
Alexander, whose theater career spans more than 50 years, including a 1968 Tony Award for The Great White Hope, mines Wohl’s script for gems, and often finds them. Her Nancy refuses to be siloed into “mother” or “wife.” She shares the intimate, sexual details of a past affair to the cringing groans of her son, demanding to be seen as a full woman with needs and desires, sharply saying, “I will be a whole person to you. I will.”
Cromwell, perhaps best known for his role in the film Babe, develops an authenticity with Alexander. Together, the couple firmly establishes the knowing glances and cumulative resentments that come with decades of marriage. Both characters’ culpabilities rise to the surface. Though it might be convenient to chalk up their discontent to the era in which they met and formulated their relationship, Ben and Jess’s simmering lack of communication proves that history can — and does — repeat itself.
Wohl’s play, not unlike last season’s Make Believe, hovers in suburbia. Ben briefly mentions the economic and emotional strain of managing his parents’ divorce, but there’s little concern from the older couple about how their split might impact their finances. Their crises are more of the existential variety than the size of their retirement account. The playwright doesn’t shy away from profanities, mostly for Nancy, who after decades of silencing her needs and desires, shoots the cannon to speak her truth, saying, “You’re either a cute old grandma, or you’re a crotchety old bitch— There is nothing in between.”
Alexander finds the “in between,” which may be reason alone to see Grand Horizons. Screaming at a neighbor complaining about their domestic squabbles, she fires back, “We will NOT QUIET DOWN. WE WILL NOT BE QUIET.” — A demand that we need to hear a lot more of these days.
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Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.