Reviews BroadwayNYC Published 9 February 2020

Review: Grand Horizons at Helen Hayes Theater

Helen Hayes Theater ⋄ 23rd December 2019 - 1st March 2020

Bess Wohl’s new play offers laughter and wry commentary on how we treat our elders but some unexpected tone shifts too. Juliet Hindell reviews.

Juliet Hindell

Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, and James Cromwell in Grand Horizons (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Grand Horizons is a poignantly pleasant confection that entertains as much as it puzzles. Set in a senior community of cookie cutter houses, it focuses on a family in transition – in this case the older generation are moving into their last act forcing their kids to face their own adulthood.  With a stellar cast, there’s plenty of laughter and wry commentary on how we treat our elders, but, in tone, we might be watching an extended episode of a TV drama like This is Us with a dose of humor thrown in.

This new play by Bess Wohl certainly has a show stopping opening line. After a silent and meticulous preparation of a meal in a bland retirement apartment, Nancy and Bill finally sit down to dinner and break their silence. Nancy’s opening shot is “I want a divorce!” to which her spouse of fifty years replies with an ambivalent “All right.”

The couple played by a luminous Jane Alexander and James Cromwell throw their sons Brian, a gay high-school drama teacher, and Ben, a bullying older brother with a corporate job, into a panic. The kids descend on their parents with Ben’s very pregnant wife Jess in tow.

Jess, played with marvelous energy by Ashley Park (of the stage version of Mean Girls), gamely launches into some healing therapy asking Bill and Nancy to start their reconciliation by holding hands. But it soon transpires, as each parent confides in one of their sons, that there is much more going on than the simple boredom of seeing the same person on the other side of the dinner table for 50 years.

In the claustrophobic environs of their small apartment (set design by Clint Ramos), Nancy’s need to break free seems to press against the walls. Bill, on the other hand, occupies an enormous recliner center stage with a patrician sneer.

Brian, played with comic panache by Michael Urie, channels his grief about the split by picking up a stranger in a bar and in an implausible scene brings his love interest back to the parental home. Maulik Pancholy, as the pick-up, does his best with some cringe-worthy role play between them that adds little momentum or insight to the play as a whole, particularly as it is followed by an intimate unloading between mother and son where a lot of the laughs are based around seniors having or thinking about sex.

This seems to be a moment for senior sex lives on stage – including Little Gem recently at the Irish Rep that similarly dwelled on older women getting it on with the help of a vibrator. While it’s diverting as explored here, the play avoids many of the real challenges of aging such as failing health and strained finances. As such, it feels like it takes place in a bubble with the real world only hinted at by the crime shows that seep through the neighbor’s wall at top volume. Another neighbor, played with adorable cheek by Priscilla Lopez, has a pivotal role in whether Bill and Nancy will stay together. While Leigh Silverman’s direction is sometimes bemusing, she is on much surer ground with one of the best stage stunts I’ve ever seen – to say more would spoil the surprise.

While the play gently exposes the feeling of invisibility that many older people experience, here we see three seasoned actors still at the top of their game and very much engaged with the world – proof perhaps that we underestimate our elders, and frequently betters, at our peril.

Juliet Hindell

Juliet Hindell first went to the theatre to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when she was four. She’s calculated that she has since seen that play more than 2 dozen times, once in Japanese. A Brit, Juliet has made her home in London, Paris, Washington D.C., Tokyo, Hong Kong, Charlotte NC and now New York. A journalist, Juliet wavers between new writing and musicals as her favorite forms of theatre, and of course Shakespeare.

Review: Grand Horizons at Helen Hayes Theater Show Info

Produced by Second Stage

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Written by Bess Wohl

Scenic Design Clint Ramos (scenic), Linda Cho (costume)

Lighting Design Jen Schriever

Sound Design Palmer Hefferan

Cast includes Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, Ben McKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park, Michael Urie


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