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A U-Haul truck crashes through a kitchen wall in the first act of Grand Horizons at People’s Light. Yet in Bess Wohl’s comedy of late-life crisis, this dramatic collision pales in comparison to the destruction caused by the dissolution of a decades-long marriage.
The breakup happens calmly, over a banal dinner—the kind you expect Nancy (Marcia Saunders) and Bill (Peter DeLaurier) have had thousands of times over 50 years of coupledom. After setting the table and serving themselves in comfortable silence, Nancy verbalizes her desire to live as a single woman for the first time in her adult life. Bill offers a flat, laconic response: “Alright.”
Despite the blasé attitude these soon-to-be-exes adopt toward this surprising twilight twist, their decision forcefully unsettles their adult children, Brian (Brian McManamon) and Ben (Dante Alexander), setting in motion a saga where members of the same family must wrestle with their individual identities, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Here’s where the drama really starts.
Toothless and retrograde
Or, at least, it should. Wohl weaves together a host of compelling topics that are worthy of investigation—in addition to the phenomenon of “gray divorce,” where long-standing marriages end in seemingly random fashion, the playwright explores how children often struggle with seeing their parents as full human beings, rather than receptacles of the kids’ own wants and needs. The play also touches on desires deferred in service of familial harmony, senior sexuality, and the impetus to avoid the mistakes of your progenitors.
Despite this, Wohl’s script often defaults to tired slapstick and stale situations that have been covered with more nuance in other works. She at times seems intent to shock the audience—forcing a son to listen to his mother describe her only brush of sexual pleasure, or having a character tell a meandering joke about sexually promiscuous nuns—but even these forays into blue humor feel toothless and tame.
Some of her choices are also surprisingly retrograde. The flighty, affected Brian is the sort of offensive burlesque of a gay stereotype only found in the works of straight writers, and McManamon is left with little choice but to play him as such. He and Alexander must also contend with thinly drawn, unpleasant characterizations of arrested toddlers dressed as grown men. Ben’s wife Jess (Jenelle Chu), conveniently a couples’ therapist, exists only to spout the language of self-actualization.
Thankfully, DeLaurier and Saunders do their best to imbue Bill and Nancy with a level of depth lacking in the script. Their status as longtime People’s Light company members surely goes a long way in creating a believable intimacy that comes through in subtle physical cues and wordless interactions. And although director Jackson Gay has a tendency to stage scenes in an awkwardly presentational manner, with the actors playing to the audience rather than each other, these veterans snatch moments of affecting connection whenever possible.
Some elements suggest the possibility of what might have been—as when a hookup that Brian brings to the family home (played with refreshing intensity by Luis Augusto Figueroa) zooms in on his self-centered myopia, or when Bill talks with real terror about ending up in Rose Court, the assisted-living facility where infirm residents wait out their final year. (The play’s title refers to the “independent living” community where Bill and Nancy currently reside, which set and lighting designer Paul Whitaker renders with a stultifying sterility.) But these moments are fleeting.
Instead, the balance of the play overflows with ribaldry and cheap physical comedy, like that hulking U-Haul—the destructive consequence of Bill’s attempt to move out. There is surely a valuable—and funny!—story to tell about the thrill and terror of realization and reinvention at an advanced age, but Grand Horizons settles instead for boulevard comedy.
What, When, Where
Grand Horizons. By Bess Wohl, directed by Jackson Gay. $40-$45. Through August 28, 2022, at the Leonard C. Haas Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
Masks are required inside the theater. People’s Light is also offering a series of reduced-capacity performances throughout the run to accommodate social distancing.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible venue with ample accessible parking. Accessible seating can be purchased in advance. There will be a relaxed and audio-described performance of Grand Horizons on August 21 at 2pm and open-captioned performances from August 23-28. Smart-caption glasses will also be available for performances August 16-28.
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