Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the always dependable James Cromwell) are beginning divorce proceedings and their grown children and their significant others are none too pleased about it.
Ben, the elder son played with sympathetic misery (Why me, oh, Lord, why me?) by Ben McKenzie, tries his best to talk them out of it, and Bill is more than happy for the support. “She’s the one who brought up this whole divorce thing,” he whines. (Cromwell is a master of the older-male whine.) “I would have just slogged it out.”
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Brian, the gay younger son whose unabashed self-centeredness is fully and amusingly indulged by Michael Urie, would just like this geriatric idiocy to stop so he can get on with his own comfy life, and his good job as a school drama teacher. (He is currently wrangling 200 students in a production of “The Crucible,” an image worthy in itself of a huge, unforced laugh.)
Brian’s first, entirely unworthy impulse is to hit the dementia red button when he learns of his parents’ impending divorce. “Is anyone forgetting things or, like, putting, like, the telephone in the fridge?” These are cheap-shot jokes, but who said comedy had to be tasteful? (A dirty nuns-at-the-pearly-gates joke gets a huge, well-deserved howl.)
Other jokes cut a little deeper and draw a little blood. Like Bill’s sardonic delivery of the daily news bulletins issued at Grand Horizons, their cruelly named retirement community: “Okay, everyone, so it’s gonna rain Friday. Ed is this week’s Bingo champion. Sheila’s started a new book club. Sam and Joanie are dead.”
Once past the unfortunate opening scenes, suggesting that the play might center on the superficial Brian, the focus shifts to Nancy and Bill and this smartly constructed comedy finds its footing. It really is the 1970s redux, but with the bright young things of that period edged out by their elders. The gags are not as slick as Simon at his best, but they have a dark, cruel depth more appropriate to our own time and our own ineffable anxiety about old age and loneliness.
To be sure, the gender divide may be more flexible than in days of yore and the sex jokes may be raunchier. But savvy director Leigh Silverman has mastered the peculiar tone of light comedy that is created out of dark matter and at one time defined the essence of sophisticated Broadway humor.
Creatives Clint Ramos (sets), Linda Cho (costumes) and Jen Schriever (lighting) know their way around those slippery Seventies. And do watch for the brilliant directorial move at the end of the first act that lifts the show right out of its time capsule and propels it into a surreal state of comedy that might be called timeless.