Playwright Bess Wohl's Make Believe, seen Off-Broadway last year in a production from Second Stage, had a first act comprised of actual children playing children. Now, with her Broadway debut Grand Horizons, Wohl examines the other end of the spectrum, when almost octogenarians Bill and Nancy find themselves confronting the possible end of their 50-year marriage with little more than sigh. Their two adult sons, however, have more to say on the subject.
“What could be more interesting as a writer than looking at one end of the life cycle and then the other?” Wohl asked at opening night. “I am always interested in telling stories that I haven't seen before and putting people at the center of a play who might otherwise be relegated to the sidelines and I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of age and I had seen a lot of plays where kids were cute set dressing, or plays where old people were in a corner mumbling, or they had Alzheimer's or dementia, and I felt excited to tell the stories from those different perspectives.”
READ: Why Small Mouth Sounds Playwright Bess Wohl Wrote Her Next Play Specifically for Child Actors
As for the specific story about a couple separating so late in life, Wohl was inspired by the cultural phenomenon known as “gray divorce,” and personally watching the parents of some of her friends divorce late in life. “Thinking about what it was like for [those friends] and then at the same time, I was newly married, so I think I was thinking about marriage in a broad sense… All of those things came together in my mind to make Grand Horizons,” she says.
For director Leigh Silverman, aside from a compulsion to work with Wohl again, the story is personal. “My grandparents actually got divorced the day after their 50th wedding anniversary,” Silverman shares. “I feel so passionate about telling a story about people self-actualizing at no matter what the age.”
Under her vision, the comedy is also a tragedy. “The thing that I think is challenging is that the writing is so funny that there's a way in which we were all the time working for the right kinds of laughs as opposed to laugh that is situational. It's laugh that comes out of character,” she continues. “You're moved or you're surprised about something that has to do with the characters and, and their pain that they're going through; Bess and I always talked about, for the characters, they're in Long Day's Journey Into Night, but for [the audience], we're in this comedy.”
Much of that comedy comes in the package of Michael Urie, who plays Bill and Nancy’s gay son Brian. “I think part of that is, in a lot of ways, he is different than everyone—at least to the core family. And he thinks he's the emotional core. The audience always laughs when he says, ‘I'm the only one with the emotional intelligence,’ and he's like, ‘I'm the first responder, I do all the emotional lifting of the emotional labor.’ And they always laugh and it's actually true,” Urie says, “Whether he succeeds at it or not, it's true. That's why there's a play, because [Bill and Nancy] don't do that. They don't deal with this.”
But the comedy also comes from other expert players onstage, including Maulik Pancholy, Broadway veteran Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line), and Ashley Park (Mean Girls). For Pancholy, the comedy comes from truth: “Obviously there're lines that we hope will get a nice response, but also I think hopefully what we're doing is playing the scene, like a true to the scene. So it's like if a laugh happens, that's amazing, but if a laugh doesn't happen it's okay because we're actually playing something that's real.”
For James Cromwell, who was last seen on Broadway in the 1992 revival of Hamlet, it’s very real. “There was stuff about Bill that's very similar to me,” he says. “I've had three marriages. I had two marriages that were both based on miscommunication between [us] and not telling the truth. I resisted it in the process. I fought, but Leigh was very strong about what she wanted.”
His co-star Jane Alexander, who won a Tony Award for The Great White Hope in 1969, agrees that much of the strength in the play originates with Silverman’s vision. “She's very precise. She goes right to the core of and she keeps after us,” says Alexander. “I didn't have one moment of mistrust with her.”
And while Cromwell felt close to his character, Alexander was “surprised, rather shocked that I was even cast...that they wanted me, because I'm known for more heroic roles and Nancy's quiet and having some real problems busting out.”
In contrast to Nancy, there’s Carla, Lopez’s character, who has had an ongoing flirtation with Bill and walks comfortably in her own shoes. “I love that she doesn't have an agenda, or her agenda is just to be happy, and take life as it comes,” says Lopez. “She makes these jokes that just kind of fall flat. So I like that she's really got a clean heart.” Still, Lopez has the challenge of entering the play at the top of Act 2 and “jumping on a running train.”
With seasoned actors like Cromwell, Alexander, and Lopez, a comedian in Pancholy, a Broadway debut in Ben McKenzie, established stage performers like Park (who marks her first Broadway play after many musicals) and Urie, the comedy and tragedy of Grand Horizons may come down to the alchemy of perspectives and experience. “It's like coalescing everybody,” says Silverman. “I think it's very much my job to try and give them a world of the play that feels like that they can each hook into it in their own way and … in this case it's a play that is born out of true connection and true character, and I think that's also part of the uniqueness of Bess’ writing.”