Just how bad can a Broadway comedy be and still get uproarious laughter from a theater audience? The new benchmark, I would propose, is Grand Horizons, the new play from Bess Wohl that has just opened at the Second Stage. The presence of two solid old pros, Jane Alexander and John Cromwell, in the lead roles — as a retired couple who are contemplating divorce after 50 years of marriage — doesn’t compensate for a comedy about as tired and hackneyed as any I’ve seen on Broadway in recent years.
The play’s first joke (in a brief, two-line opening scene) is the offhand way the bored wife announces over dinner that she wants a divorce, and the casualness with which her husband assents. But the play’s main joke revolves around the hysteria the impending divorce inspires in couple’s two grown children: older son Ben, a lawyer with a very pregnant wife, and his younger brother Brian, a frantically neurotic gay drama teacher. The undertones of a serious message — the late-in-life effort to rectify a comfortable but unfulfilling marriage, the inability of kids to accept the needs of their aging parents — are overwhelmed by a parade of strained gag lines and sitcom contrivances: predictable revelations about the couple’s secret (but actually not so secret) extramarital affairs; some lame satire of touchy-feely psychobabble, courtesy of Ben’s therapist wife; a ridiculous scene in which Brian (a gratingly over-the-top Michael Urie) brings a bar pickup home, only to be suddenly flustered by the realization that his mother is sleeping upstairs; and that hoary old standby, graphic sex talk blurted out by a seemingly prim senior citizen. Poor Jane Alexander.
I wouldn’t dwell on this trivial play, except that the audience seemed to love it, and so did a surprising number of critics. (“A sweet, sweet delight … carefully made, beautifully acted, and extremely funny,” said New York’s Helen Shaw.) To which I can only respond: beware.