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'Grand Horizons' meets great expectations

The Asolo Rep’s production of “Grand Horizons” is seriously funny. And, sometimes, just plain serious.

Peter Van Wagner, John Rapson, Dayne Lee Palya, Suzanne Grodner and Zachary Prince star in Asolo Rep's production of Grand Horizons. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Roles)
Peter Van Wagner, John Rapson, Dayne Lee Palya, Suzanne Grodner and Zachary Prince star in Asolo Rep's production of Grand Horizons. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Roles)
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The Asolo Repertory Theatre production of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” opens with a cheeky parody of an infomercial for a generic retirement community in Florida.

The name? Grand Horizons, natch.

It’s funny — with a soothing/creepy vibe straight out of “The Stepford Wives.”

After the short video ends, the play itself actually starts. You see Nancy (Suzanne Grodner) and Bill (Peter Van Wagner) — an 80-something married couple preparing for dinner in their happy Grand Horizons condo.

They go through a series of precisely timed moves like two mechanical figures on a Swiss clock. (You figure they’ve been married since the Nixon administration and worked out the steps a long time ago.)

Then the routine suddenly breaks. Nancy matter-of-factly says, “I think I would like a divorce.” Like she’s asking Bill to pass the salt.

His reply is equally blasé. “All right.” And we’re off to the races.

Word of the couple’s impending d-i-v-o-r-c-e leaks out. Their adult sons, Ben (John Rapson) and Brian (Zachary Prince), come to the rescue and stage an intervention. Their parents splitting up is unthinkable to the lads.

The idea is nuts! Could Alzheimer’s be the explanation? Brian and Ben argue with Mom and Dad. There’s much sound and fury. It yields no resolution, but there are revelations.

Bill fancies himself a comedian and is having an affair with Carla (Elise Santora), a woman he met in stand-up comedy class. Nancy’s been carrying a torch for a man named Hal and once got down and dirty with him.

(She describes this in some detail, giving Brian the howling fantods.)

Wohl’s point, in case you missed it? Old people have sexual thoughts.

As revelations go, that’s pretty lightweight. But the greater revelation is existential.

People (old or young) want to be seen. As revelations go, that’s pretty heavy.

But the takeaway is more like a fortune cookie at end of a meal. Neil Simonized comedy (aka top-shelf, theatrical sitcom dialogue) is the main course, and Wohl serves it up well. It’s a funny play despite a few script problems.

Director Celine Rosenthal makes the most of the material. Wohl’s breezy comedy scenes are probably the hardest to direct. The beats of sitcom writing can be as predictable as a bad Jerry Lewis movie. Ba-da-boom. Ba-doom-boom? Boom-bada-boom-boom. (Ha-ha-ha-ha).

The family drama of Grand Horizons brings a lot of unexpected developments to the surface. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Roles)
The family drama of Grand Horizons brings a lot of unexpected developments to the surface. (Photo courtesy of Cliff Roles)

The trick is to honor the music of the dialogue while creating the illusion of life. Rosenthal succeeds.

The actors do too. That’s also not so easy. When all is said and done, they’re dealing with stock characters. But they all deftly individualize their roles.

Van Wagner’s Bill is a taciturn, curmudgeonly stoic. A man of few words — until he finds out he has to pack his bags. Then his inner Henny Youngman is unleashed!

(Bill tells a filthy joke about nuns at one point and gets a big laugh.) The playwright’s strategy is to imply Bill is a lifeless, lousy husband — and then surprise you at his hidden depths. Van Wagner’s great at the character reveal and doesn’t oversell it.

Grodner’s Nancy is also very funny. Her abrupt character-turn is the motor driving the play. She goes from quiet desperation to "I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore" in 60 seconds.

After that, Grodner’s character gets many hilarious lines. She makes the audience howl with, “You’re either a cute old grandma, or you’re a crotchety old bitch — there is nothing in between.”

Prince’s Brian is out of his depth in the condo limbo. His character’s a high school drama teacher who can’t stand disappointing his students, so he’s cast all 200 of them in the school production of “The Crucible.”

He’s a hoot in the cringe-worthy scene where his mom shares her adulterous sexual escapades.

Rapson’s Ben is a successful lawyer and a ball of raw nerves. His anxiety manifests as eczema. To his type-A personality, his parents’ divorce is like mixing potatoes and peas on a school lunch tray.

His advice? “If you wanted to get divorced, you should have done it after we went to college, like normal people.”

Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Dayna Lee Palya), comes along for the ride. She’s a therapist with touchy-feely advice. She figures if Nancy and Bill just hold hands, look into each other’s eyes and share, their marital problems will all go away. It doesn’t take long before they get on her last nerve.

Santora’s Carla is simpatico and layered and not the home-wrecking floozy you’re led to expect. She’s also quick-witted. You know she knocks 'em dead on open mic night. Lance Spencer is funny as Tommy in a brief scene depicting Brian’s failed attempt to arrange a one-night stand in his parents’ condo.

Speaking of which, Brian Prather’s set is shiny and antiseptic. Everything perfectly placed and neat as a pin. The condo looks like it’s been staged for a real estate photo. It doesn’t look like actual humans live there.

Mika Eubanks’ costumes smartly delineate the generational and cultural divides. Grungy plaid for the theater person, crisp polyester for the lawyer, whatever for mom and dad.

All that creative talent helps sell you on this limbo of retirement living. As the production unfolds, it all adds up to lots of laughs. But there’s more to Wohl’s play than that. And, sometimes, more is less.

“Grand Horizons” sometimes feel like two plays awkwardly stitched together. It’s a 21st century, Neil Simon-style comedy. But it’s also a serious, existential drama that’s no laughing matter. 21st century Ibsen, perhaps.

Wohl’s comedy simply needs no explanation. Wohl’s existential philosophy is sound — but not that simple.

Here’s my take …

Hiding your real self destroys the possibility of real relationships. Nancy and Bill were invisible to each other. And their children as well.

The younger generation is equally invisible. Young or old, the characters all hide, keep secrets, put up false fronts and go through the motions.

(Existential blame is a two-way street. Some secrets are kept because nobody ever asks.)

By keeping up appearances, Bill and Nancy robbed themselves of a chance at happiness. And it’s hard to make up for lost time when you finally drop the mask after your 80th birthday.

Get real before you get old. Harsh lesson. And it isn’t lost on the kids.

This heavy philosophy has a wrestling match with the frothy comedy. A scene starts out with a comic tone, then swerves to the dark side. That’s obviously no accident. Wohl’s a great writer. She probably figured, “That’s where the scene would go; that’s what the characters would say.”

Maybe. But the tone is uneven. Don’t get me wrong. I laughed out loud throughout this production — and experience, not analysis, always counts.

So, if you don’t mind the peas of philosophy spilling into the mashed potatoes of comedy, check into “Grand Horizons.” It’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad. Chances are, you’ll see yourself in one of the characters.


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