Although Bess Wohl loads her play “Grand Horizons” with laughs, she is also attempting to seriously examine marital relations and how grown children regard their parents. Despite some gimmicky situations that stretch credibility, Wohl largely succeeds while providing an audience with a rollicking good time. Much of that achievement stems from the performances of a superb cast.
Directed effectively by Leigh Silverman in tune with the author’s split-level approach of the comedic and serious, “Grand Horizons” is being presented by Second Stage Theater after being developed in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
The pivotal force in the play is former librarian Nancy, given a terrific performance by the luminous Jane Alexander. It is her cry for more fulfillment as a woman that generates her demand for a divorce from husband Bill after 50 years of marriage The taciturn Bill, superbly depicted by James Cromwell, casually agrees. Their lack of communication is fodder for laughter. Bill, who has spent is life as a pharmacist even though he wanted to be a standup comedian, has a moment when he speaks directly to the audience to try to explain himself. Nancy has a poignant sequence in which she eloquently and movingly describes what has been sadly missing in her life through all their years of marriage.
Trouble explodes when their sons, aghast at the divorce plans, show up in their parents’ retirement home to try to keep them together. The uptight Ben (Ben McKenzie), a lawyer, is accompanied by his pregnant wife Jess (Ashley Park), and in all the heat that occurs, problems surface in their own marriage. Brian (Michael Urie), gay and emotionally fragile, is a teacher who tries to do good by giving his 200 drama students chances to shine via his ludicrous multiple casting of individual characters in “The Crucible.”
A major portion of the humor occurs when Nancy confesses to Brian that she was always in love with her high school sweetheart Hal, and that they had trysts while she was married to Bill. Brian has trouble processing the sexual details, especially for example, when she reveals that the secret love of her life had said “'I love your pussy,’” and that “he gave me the most incredible head.” Brian is more and more hilariously upset with each description.
Nancy also confides that Bill now has a younger girlfriend, Carla (Priscilla Lopez), who at one point visits Nancy, and their getting along is more grist for comedy, as when Carla educates Nancy on the joys of using a vibrator. Ben, during one of his visits, wrestles the cell phone away from his father to check messages of sex talk in his liaison with Carla.
One other cast member is Maulik Pancholy as the gay Tommy, whom Brian brings to his parents’ home secretly one night, but who bolts when Brian displays emotional problems that Tommy regards as immature.
As the play clips along we get a picture of how offspring can have little idea of their parents’ lives and don’t know how to cope when they have to face facts that destroy the visions of their elders acquired since childhood.
The playwright keeps piling on the incidents, laugh lines and situations that add to our enjoyment, and the actors rise to the occasion admirably. When all is said and done, we are left with a bittersweet view of how, despite everything, there is still underlying love simmering between Nancy and Bill. At Second Stage’s Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-541-4516. Reviewed January 29, 2020.