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NY Theater Reviews

(L to R) Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander and James Cromwell/ Ph: Joan Marcus

IMPERFECT UNION

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

Bess Wohl’s play features characters we can all recognize, brought to life by a first-rate cast.

Most of us love a good chicken parmigiana or hearty pot roast, but the recipes most valued by New York theatergoers can’t be found in any restaurant. Instead, they are currently on stage in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, now being presented by Second Stage at the Helen Hayes Theater. Forget the vittles; here’s where you should go to find out how to maintain a lengthy happy marriage and how to put together a play that consistently entertains (and sometimes enlightens) an audience for over two hours.

The ingredients for the first “dish,” according to Wohl, are a healthy tablespoon of communication, another heaping teaspoon of honesty and a ladleful of practicality. “I do realize that’s what marriage is: a contract to be tied to each other’s stupidity,” says Nancy (Jane Alexander in a truly remarkable, often understated performance) who has, nonetheless, recently asked her seemingly unhappy husband Bill (a delightfully grumpy James Cromwell) for a divorce after 50 years of matrimony. 

Nancy’s reasons for her “sudden” change of heart turn out to be numerous. She doesn’t feel “seen” by Bill, who apparently never asked about her sexual needs or satisfied them (as a former lover did). She has no sense of being an independent person. (She doesn’t even have her own checking account.) And oh yeah, Bill is having some sort of affair with Carla (the delightful Priscilla Lopez), a colorful former receptionist whom he met while taking a class in stand-up comedy. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say (at least for a while) if Bill really wants out, as much as he protests otherwise: After all, upon leaving his marital residence, he “accidentally” drives his U-Haul through one of their walls.

The couple’s marriage is far from the only imperfect union onstage. Their oldest son Ben (a solid Ben McKenzie), a lawyer with seemingly limited emotional intelligence, isn’t really listening to his very pregnant, very hormonal wife Jess (an excellent Ashley Park), a psychotherapist who admittedly babbles quite a bit more than she should at times, mostly in her quest to help Nancy and Bill work out their problems.

Meanwhile, gay younger son Brian (Michael Urie, doing wonders with a somewhat unsympathetic character) is not only romantically unattached, he even shies away from instant sexual gratification (here in the form of the game Maulik Pancholy as bar pick-up Tommy). Moreover, he worries more about making his 200 students happy (by casting them all, somehow, in a production of The Crucible) than his own self-fulfillment, never mind the needs of his troubled parents.

As for his view of his adulthood, this modern Peter Pan sums that up thusly: “The defining feature of adulthood is that you never get to do what you want. Children do what they want. Adults struggle to meet the needs of other people. Make a living. Satisfy a thousand obligations. And still fall short and wind up disappointing everyone.”

If this sounds like heavy stuff, it may well be thematically, but Wohl has salt-and-peppered the script with plenty of sitcom-like situations guaranteed to make you giggle (even if you don’t want to) and more zingy one-liners than a vintage Neil Simon play. (Brian to Tommy: “By the way, you’re going to get lost leaving here. The houses all look the same.” Tommy: “This place is literally designed so people with Alzheimer's can navigate it. I’ll be fine!”) Most of all, Wohl has written characters we can all recognize, whether as ourselves or others, and the first-rate cast brings each one marvelously to life under Leigh Silverman’s deft direction.

I wouldn’t say Grand Horizons deserves a Michelin star, but it’s definitely a delicious and somewhat nourishing night out on the town.