I bet Jane Alexander—former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, whose much-lauded portrayals in nobility include Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt—has spent her whole career yearning to say “fuck” and “pussy” onstage. Now a regal 80, in her first Broadway appearance since 1998, she gets her chance in Grand Horizons, a tidy com-dram enlivened by outbursts of different kinds.
Bess Wohl’s play begins with Nancy (Alexander) calmly asking her husband of fifty years, Bill (James Cromwell) for a divorce, and Bill blandly acceding. Explaining this turn of events to his sons, he says, “I would have just slogged it out,” which is emotional as he gets after decades of marital wheel-spinning. But Ben (Ben McKenzie) and Brian (Michael Urie) aren’t so relaxed about this sudden detonation of their nuclear family. In plumbing the undercurrents of their parents’ dissatisfaction, they confront the anxieties in their own relationships–the hyper-critical Ben is expecting his first child with his analyst wife Jess (Ashley Park), while the self-absorbed Brian, a drama teacher obsessed with packing all 200 of his students into his production of The Crucible, can’t get anything substantial going with anyone, including an interested date, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy).
A problem with the show is that the problems of Ben and Brian get a scene each, neither all that compelling. It came as a shock to learn that McKenzie, who I mostly recall from The O.C., is now 41, but additional years of TV on Southland and Gotham have given him sufficient chops for his Broadway debut, and he holds his own with his veteran co-stars. Urie has long been one of my favorite stage actors, delightful in just about everything, yet Brian flirts with gay stereotype. He has his moments (how does he wiggle his eyes like that?) and he offsets the more stolidly comic performances of Alexander and Cromwell, but he does too much in a role that does too little for him.
Grand Horizons is at its occasional best sticking to the cozily impersonal confines of the senior living community that gives the play its title. A third resident, Carla (another always welcome performer, Priscilla Lopez), shakes things up for a scene in the second act, which, thanks to expert work by scenic designer Clint Ramos, looks the same, but is different. (To say why would be to give away the show’s biggest surprise; that said, pay attention to Bryce Cutler’s curtain-spanning projection.) The set is a perfect metaphor for the play’s emotional content, with surfaces that never seem to change concealing roiling passions that eventually rock the foundations of one’s life. Director Leigh Silverman has certainly encouraged Alexander to go there, and she and to a lesser extent Cromwell (who has less to express in his return to the main stem after 28 years) are affecting in their late-in-life predicament. But the playwright doesn’t use them to their best advantage; profanity-laced exchanges that don’t add as much humor as intended arrive every 15 minutes, as predictably as chases in an action movie. Grand Horizons thinks too narrowly, even if it’s pretty fucking great to have Jane Alexander back on Broadway.