The STC’s emotionally nuanced production of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons creates a warm evening of traditional boulevard theatre. By Jason Blake.
You’re never too old. Never too old, in this case, to ask for a divorce. But to drive a rental truck? The act one climax of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, in which the co-lead character makes a disastrous gear selection error, is a strong case for a hard age limit.
Director Jessica Arthur’s Sydney Theatre Company production begins with the curtain inching up to a slow reveal of the sumptuously beige world of Grand Horizons, a residential development for well-off seniors, one offering frictionless transition from “independent living” to palliative care for those who can afford it.
Nancy (Linda Cropper) and Bill (John Bell) are preparing a meal. They do nothing remarkable and yet within a minute or so the audience is laughing delightedly at their wordless domestic dance, which leaves us wondering whether we are witnessing a hardwired act of devotion or something more akin to a routine developed in a prison.
It only takes a spoonful of casserole to put us straight: “I think I would like a divorce,” says Nancy.
Bill, a retired pharmacist and Nancy’s partner of 50 years, doesn’t bat an eyelid, let alone drop his spoon. “All right,” he replies. And that is that.
The sangfroid exhibited by Nancy and Bill as they arrive at the full stop in their life sentence isn’t apparent in their sons, however. Ben (Johnny Nasser) and Brian (Guy Simon) – temperamentally chalk and cheese in the way comedy-drama siblings often are – descend on Grand Horizons in a storm of indignation and bewilderment.
Eldest son Ben – visiting with his partner Jess (Zindzi Okenyo), a very pregnant therapist – is a lawyer with plenty on his plate already. His stress levels are visibly metered in the spread of his eczema. Brian (drama teacher, single, gay) is a knot of anxiety. Pulled away from overseeing a school production of The Crucible for a cast of 200, he is convinced there can be only one reason for the split: “Is anyone forgetting things, or, like, putting the telephone in the fridge?”
While Bill quietly goes about packing boxes and finessing his stand-up comedy set, and Nancy ponders a charitable expedition to Lebanon, the brothers crawl the walls in frustration. The crux of their argument is why divorce now? You’re almost dead!
A native of Brooklyn, New York City, Wohl is a career playwright who came to attention with Small Mouth Sounds, a deftly funny immersion into a spiritual wellness retreat. In that play, Wohl’s focus wasn’t so much on why people are drawn to such places, but on the interactions of diverse types: the microaggressions perpetrated and suffered; the struggle to connect; the playing out of desire and rivalry. The novelty was that pretty much everything was conveyed in a play without words.
Grand Horizons, which earned Wohl her first Tony-nomination in 2020, is a more conventional and wordy work that strikes as a play written with a target audience in mind rather than one with something urgent at its core. It seems incapable of delivering a true surprise – even if you are new to the notion that parents and senior citizens are human, too.
But from the get-go, Wohl expertly dishes up everything needed to sustain our amused interest and sympathy. Her lead characters are economically but finely drawn. Outsiders are introduced – one per act – to spice things up and keep an audience on its toes. Even when Wohl stoops to conquer – with sex jokes mostly – she does so with a measure of elegance.
Chewing at the end of a critic’s pencil, one could argue that Wohl is satirising the institution of marriage by depicting it through the no-less-institutional lens of the well-made stage comedy. She certainly has the chops to try, and to pull it off. But to me at least, there’s warmth enough in Grand Horizons to suggest Wohl is relishing the pleasures – and challenges – of playing within the lines laid down by previous generations of boulevard theatre writers.
Jessica Arthur, whose knack for domestic dramedy was recently showcased in her production of Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling at the Sydney Opera House, directs with a choreographer’s eye for position and timing on designer Renée Mulder’s grandly scaled set of blond woods and oatmeal fabrics. If you are not closely observing the pot plants, the revelation that the second act is taking place in another house entirely will come as one of the production’s best gags – second only to the arrival of the aforementioned rental truck, a showstopper of a magnitude only a well-resourced state theatre company can conjure.
Arthur also spares us the effort of trans-Pacific translation. With a few adjustments, Wohl’s dialogue fits perfectly in the Australian mouth. This is a Grand Horizons of Lake Macquarie or Tweed Heads, or some gated enclave of Glen Waverley.
The cast is strong, led by Cropper, who brings Nancy flawlessly to life in her first appearance for the STC since the 2009 Tim Finn musical Poor Boy. Her physical decisions are convincing. She gives Nancy the warily precise tread of someone who’s had a fall, all the while ensuring her vibrancy and curiosity is transmitted to us undimmed.
Cropper’s deadpan timing is terrific too, but as the play unfolds, she gently opens up Nancy’s inner life. Her recollection of a sexual encounter decades ago could be played for squirmy laughs, given that she’s revealing all to an aghast Ben. Instead Cropper plays it straight, lighting up the memory from inside. Rightly, Ben’s reaction to her demand to be seen as “a whole person” is made to seem hopelessly immature.
Bell’s Bill is the perfect sourpuss. In tune with his character’s sardonic humour, Bell’s characteristic terseness serves the play well – especially when Bill cuts loose to regale the family with a blue joke about nuns at the gates of Heaven.
Ben and Brian are more simplistically written but both are played well. Nasser brings gritty energy to his exchanges and Simon manages – just – to ground the featherweight Brian, a role that becomes more shrill and insubstantial as the play progresses. Happily, he gets to shine in a sparkling first act scene of misjudged sexual role-play with Tommy (the memorably fizzy James Majoos), a young guy Brian has picked up in a bar.
Okenyo makes good with the comparatively little Wohl gives her as the alternately touchy-feely and furious Jess. Vanessa Downing is delightful as Carla, Bill’s new “girlfriend” from nearby Vista View. Her one scene with Cropper is an understated highlight of the show.
Grand Horizons ends with a poignant image: Nancy and Bill, somewhat untethered from the world of Grand Horizons, attempting to find common ground on which to share their last years. All credit to this emotionally supple production for making us care about whether they find it.
Grand Horizons plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until July 3.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 19, 2021 as "Ageing disgracefully".
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