Second Stage Theater seems to be single-handedly attempting to revive the boulevard comedy on Broadway. There was a time when the Great White Way was dominated by such middlebrow, mass-appeal fare, with the late, great Neil Simon as the chief avatar of the genre. Just months after staging Tracy Letts’ genial comedy “Linda Vista,” Second Stage has mounted Bess Wohl’s broadly entertaining “Grand Horizons.” (The show opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theater.)
In the opening scene, we meet a long-married couple (the delightful Jane Alexander and James Cromwell) who’ve settled into a retirement community called Grand Horizons and a routine so settled they barely speak as they enact a synchronized dance to set the dinner table for each other and sit down to microwaved meals washed down with Crystal Light. Until she declares, “I think I would like a divorce.”
And he responds, barely looking up from his plate, “All right.”
Soon, the couple’s grown children descend on the place: Ben (former “Gotham” star Ben McKenzie, the weak link of the ensemble) and his very pregnant therapist wife, Jess (Ashley Park, late of “Mean Girls”), and their perpetually single gay son Brian (Michael Urie, “Torch Song”), who’s so averse to hurting anyone’s feelings that he’s cast 200 kids in a high school production of “The Crucible.”
Needless to say, they are flabbergasted by the news that their seventysomething parents are breaking up after 50 years. “I mean, if you wanted to get divorced you should have done it after we went to college, like normal people,” Ben tells them.
But it’s clear that the kids can’t really comprehend their parents as fully functioning adults — with sex lives and emotional baggage, just like them. It’s also clear that each son reflects their parents’ complicated relationship, including the aversion to public displays of affection and the reluctance to communicate genuine feelings.
There’s also ageism at work too, a theme that plays well with a Broadway audience whose demographic tends to be more Fox News than MTV. As Alexander’s Nancy laments at one point about women her age, “You’re either a cute old grandma, or you’re a crotchety old bitch — there is nothing in between.”
While Cromwell plays curmudgeon with crotchety perfection, Alexander imbues her sometimes enigmatic character with some real nuance — and she lands her punchlines like a pro. And there are punchlines galore in Wohl’s well-crafted script, where the laughs and the story beats land like clockwork under Leigh Silverman’s nicely paced direction.
Since her 2016 Off-Broadway breakout “Small Mouth Sounds,” Wohl has emerged as a major voice in American theater — with three very different, but very good shows premiering just last year: “Continuity,” “Make Believe” and this one, which debuted at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer (with a mostly different cast).
What’s refreshing about “Grand Horizons” is how Wohl widens the scope beyond the immediate family to a winning degree, offering plum cameos for Maulik Pancholy as a late-night booty call for Brian gone wrong and for Priscilla Lopez as a fellow Grand Horizons resident who’s taken a shine to Bill.
Yes, the humor can be as broad as a U-Haul truck. But “Grand Horizons” delivers old-fashioned entertainment that’s become a rarity on Broadway.