Jane Alexander triumphs in ‘Grand Horizons’ on Broadway, and feel the chill of ‘The Woman in Black’
The Daily Beast
January 23, 2020
Jane Alexander and James Cromwell are brilliant as two parents planning to divorce in “Grand Horizons” on Broadway. And “The Woman in Black” lands in NYC, ghost and screams intact.
Grand Horizons is an elder living community, and it is ironically named in Bess Wohl’s excellent debut Broadway play, mounted by Second Stage (at the Helen Hayes Theater to March 1).
The horizons facing Nancy (Jane Alexander) and Bill (James Cromwell) feel constrained at the outset, to say the least. Physically, all the apartments at Grand Horizons look the same, and Clint Ramos’ design cozily captures the generic, plush comfort and practicality of such accommodation. Bill sees the development is a kind of peaceful conveyor belt to eventual death.
Bill and Nancy have been together 50 years, and Alexander and Cromwell evoke, with a good deal of perfectly timed mordant wit, the dovetailing of that marriage in decline with the many meanings and experiences of aging. The comedy and drama in Grand Horizons work in clever interplay. Director Leigh Silverman adeptly balances the play’s many paces and tones—black comedies about broken families are tricky beasts to marshal.
The opening scene is a crisp piece of domestic ballet, as both Nancy and Bill set the table for a meal. They put plates down and arrange the table without a word, until sitting down, Nancy announces, “I think I would like a divorce.”
Bill stoutly replies: “All right.”
The couple themselves seem firmly committed to their future single lives. They have been living in a horizonless mutually occupied shell for such a long time, their own ships in the night. Nancy can’t wait to eat in a restaurant alone for the first time.
Their children, Ben (Ben McKenzie, star of The O.C. and Gotham) and Brian (Michael Urie; Ugly Betty, Torch Song Trilogy, Buyer and Cellar), are freaking out. Ben is married to Jess (Ashley Park); they are expecting a baby. He is a rigid lawyer, looking for plans and strategies to resolve their parents’ problems. Brian is a musical theater teacher, currently presiding over a production of The Crucible featuring 200 children. Urie does what Urie does best, bringing a side-eye flinging, ranging physical energy to his sense of outrage and hurt.
There are many family dramas on and off Broadway orbiting similar territory, but few with the sharp-elbowed mischief of Grand Horizons, which includes Nancy at one moment fooling her children into thinking, as they suspect, that she is losing her marbles.
Both sons want their parents to stay together, and Wohl and the cast adeptly play with the sense of the mature adults becoming more kid-like—imagining new lives, talking sex, having affairs, shrugging off responsibilities—while their children become the stereotypical adults. They judge their parents, check their phones for—shock, horror—sexting, and admonish them for being irresponsible. “I mean, you’re almost 80. Like, how much else even is there?” says Ben.
Shocked Brian picks up a guy, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy), for sex, but in a very funny scene of mixed signals and misunderstandings, loses it when he thinks Tommy is suggesting they act out an incestuous sexual role-play. Act I ends with an explosive moment that loudly shook a delighted audience around me.
Inevitably, there are buried secrets about Nancy and Bill’s fidelity, which lead to more mortification for Brian when Nancy graphically describes her sexual experiences. She even bonds with Carla (Priscilla Lopez, please note her exquisite Playbill bio), her husband’s mistress. They talk about marriage—which Nancy compares to both a boa constrictor and a stray dog—and vibrators. She cannot wait to get out of there and devote herself to helping refugees—to look out into a bigger world.
Alexander and Cromwell are wonderful to watch, equally hilarious and moving. Cromwell’s Bill is gruff, yet dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian.
As Nancy, Alexander applies a wry, sometimes lacerating perspective to everything around her. Grow up, she tells everyone, as she shucks off all the expectations of wife- and motherhood. This critic hopes Alexander earns a Tony nomination for Grand Horizons. Her performance is a many-shaded joy to watch.
The first act gallops and succeeds dramatically more fluently than the second, with its slightly more unwieldy plot mechanics—and the odd shifts in Ben and Jess’ relationship, which sometimes blur and fall out of focus.
But throughout Wohl writes the family’s confrontations and conflagrations with a piercing eye for the specific: a group of five freckles on Nancy’s shoulder, for example; or Brian’s memory of Ben bullying him by sitting on him when they were young boys. That bullying aspect of her husband is also experienced by Jess, who speaks for many in the audience when she asks of the two boys: “Why don’t both of you grow the fuck up?”
It turns out everyone needs to grow up and get honest. The play flirts with breaking Bill and Nancy up, and showing us and Ben and Brian the merits of this. Relationships within the family are left, if not in tatters, then in very problematic places. But the play also asks what should happen to a longtime couple who have taken their sadnesses for granted, who may not be suited right now, who have stopped talking, who have secrets, but who have a fundamental knowledge of each other, and a shared empathy too.
Suddenly, at the end of this excellent play, those “grand horizons” look possible again—and, unlike so many family dramas on screen and stage, it is a conclusion that feels real and hard-won, rather than a hastily tied, feel-good neat bow.
‘The Woman in Black’
The Woman in Black is a 30-plus year mainstay of London’s West End stage and arrives in New York to play at the McKittrick Hotel (to March 8), a few flights up from Sleep No More. It is a classic ghost story, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s novel, with the spectral figure of the title responsible for many of the evening’s frights. You may have seen the two movie adaptations.
At the McKittrick, you can sit with a glass of wine (or excellent cocktail) and watch the story of solicitor Arthur Kipps (David Acton) try to make sense of what happened to him many years before with an actor (Ben Porter) when he had to go to a creepy English manor, Eel Marsh House, to oversee the management of a dead woman’s estate. Therein lies a tale of family tragedy and dead bodies—and a tragedy will eventually affect Kipps even more directly.
The frights are visual, but accentuated thanks to a combination of arresting illuminations, darkness and noise (the combined work of director Robin Herford, designer Michael Holt, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting, and Sebastian Frost’s sound). Get ready for shrieks, blackouts, thuds, and sudden apparitions, for mist and night, for secret rooms, for lights above you to go a washed-out blue, an imaginary dog, unseen quicksand, and strangely moving rocking chairs.
The audience I sat within shrieked and also laughed, and yet occasionally something seemed to jar between what Acton and Porter were doing on stage and the way it was being watched—of laughter and sniggering at just the wrong moments. But that also may speak to what we do when we are scared, and the sudden shifts in tone in the production itself.
The great thing about the space is that your eyes and everyone’s around you are constantly darting this way and that to see what may materialize.
Because it is both ghost story and a metafictional tale of making a piece of theater about that ghost story, The Woman in Black needs to be listened to closely, as who is talking can be confusing as the two men tag in and out of playing Kipps. The play drags in some places yet thrills in others. It is at its most involving in the simple act of storytelling.
Whoever is playing the Woman in Black herself—and therefore responsible for some of the show’s biggest surprises—remains an uncredited mystery, in a nod to the play itself. The actor’s name is withheld “to keep the suspense alive,” a show spokesperson informed The Daily Beast.