Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons Won’t Answer All of Your Existential Questions
With Grand Horizons she did the “impossible thing” of bringing a show about late-in-life divorce to Broadway.
Grand Horizons, the Broadway debut from playwright Bess Wohl, begins with a declaration. After a few moments of futzing around in the kitchen fixing dinner, Nancy, one of the show’s octogenarian leads, tells Bill, her husband of 50 years, that she would like a divorce.
The question of whether or not Bill and Nancy can be steered—by their polar-opposite adult sons Ben (Ben McKenzie) and Brian (Michael Urie)— back into their marriage hangs in the balance for the entirety of the play. But if you’re looking for definitive answers in Wohl’s work, you won’t find them.
“I don’t feel like I have the answers, and if I did, I don’t think I would have to write the play,” Wohl said. “The play is an interrogation, and it’s me trying to figure something out. What does it mean to really see another person for who they are in the full truth of their humanity? And is that possible? And how do we do that? And what parts of ourselves do we have to let go of in order to do that?”
Wohl grew up in Brooklyn and went to Yale School of Drama for acting, where she realized she wanted to be a writer. “I have this sort of weird, contrary streak in everything I do,” she laughed. “I try to go for one thing, and I just end up over there, somewhere else. I’ve never been linear in my entire life.”
Not that her dramatic training was a waste; she writes her plays with an actor’s mind. “For me, there’s a sort of physical, visceral connection to the play,” Wohl said. “It’s not in my head, it’s really in my body, what the rhythms of the play should be, in a way that I think is directly connected to having been an actor. I see things in three dimensions and in space.”
Wohl said the idea for Grand Horizons began to germinate six or seven years ago, when one of her closest friend’s parents got divorced in their late 70s. “I saw the effect it had on him, and the way it changed his relationship to his family and his ideas about commitment and love. It was around the same time that I was getting married myself and starting a family,” she said.
“I just started thinking, is there a play in this idea of ‘What is love? What is commitment over time? Can love sustain over time? What happens when you step outside of your role in a family? Can you be in a family and still be yourself or do you always have to sacrifice some part of your identity and freedom?’ All of that was raging in my brain. So I decided to write a play about it.”
She wrote the first act in Williamstown almost three summers ago, then left it alone for nearly a year. It wasn’t until director Leigh Silverman shared a story about her grandparents, who got divorced the day after their 50th anniversary, that she decided to pick it up again. “I dug around and found that there’s a cultural phenomenon called grey divorce, where people decide they want to get divorced in their late 70s or 80s, at a time when most people would think, just stick it out,” Wohl said. “People are saying ‘No, I want to make a change.’ I was really interested in that happening in the larger culture and whether my play could speak to that.”
Grand Horizons‘s protagonists are played by theater veterans James Cromwell and Jane Alexander, both of whom are around 80. Wohl said she depended on their age and experience to inform the development of their characters. “There is only so much my imagination can do at a certain point, and they’re actually inside of that experience of what it feels like to be at that stage in life. They’ve offered a lot of really interesting input and thoughts.”
“Jane in particular kept telling me during rehearsals that the humor was so vital to her. Because part of her philosophy on aging is that if you don’t laugh, you’re really going to be screwed,” Wohl said. “You either get bitter or you find the humor. She kept saying, ‘The humor is not just about creating a funny play, it’s that for people our age humor is a lifeline that is the way we get through the day.’”
Many would struggle to recall the last time there was a stage production that involved older characters who weren’t suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s or some other ailment. Wohl challenged herself to embrace that thought experiment wholeheartedly, and ended up with a play that is concerned with the lives and sexuality of older people, without being condescending. “That’s what I’m always interested in with my writing—what’s the impossible thing? Whether it’s a stage effect or a storyline, what’s a thing I haven’t seen before that I think will be either really great or will be a total and complete fiasco?” Wohl said. “I’m actually interested in both outcomes and curious about where it will lead me. I’m constantly trying to find something impossible and seeing if I can pull it off.”
In Grand Horizons, Bill and Nancy are layered, complex people who are not limited or dehumanized by age. “A lot of people in the theater world do a lot of complaining about the age of audiences. They say they’re too old,” Wohl said. “I get that, and I think it’s really important to encourage younger, more diverse audiences and I am all on board with that. But I also had a curiosity of, what if I wrote something for these people who we’re all complaining about? They’re going to come anyway; they have the free time and the cash. So what might be an interesting way to provoke them and get them thinking about the choices they’ve made in their lives?”
With sharp interjections from supporting players like Ashley Park, Maulik Pancholy, and Priscilla Lopez, Grand Horizons seeks to explore the questions of what it means to play a particular “role” within a family unit—whether that be parent, child, in-law, or otherwise—and what happens when a person decides to step out of the role they’ve always embodied. Everyone is rattled to varying effects.
Wohl, who is a mother to three children under the age of seven, said she is fascinated by sibling relationships and brought some of that perspective into creating the characters of Ben and Brian, who frantically react to the news of their parents divorce and move in to their suburban condo.
“When your parents get divorced, what I noticed from the stories I would hear is that people really revert to their childhood selves very quickly and feel completely rocked as if they were 8 years old,” she said. “I was interested in this regression and the feeling of—even though you’re an adult—still wanting to be parented by your parents.”
Whol has four Off-Broadway plays and a musical under her belt, but Grand Horizons marks her first production to go to Broadway. As of right now, its also the only female-written play on the Great White Way. “So many musicals and big shows on Broadway have completely male creative teams,” Wohl said. “I have three daughters and when I have to explain to them who made this thing, it’s always so disheartening. But I also tell them, this is why you have to go for it and not let anyone tell you you can’t do things.”
“The more Broadway looks the way it looks—a lot of white men making things—the less women and people of color are encouraged to dream on that scale,” Wohl said. When she was initially approached by Carole Rothman, who runs Second Stage Theater, and Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director of Williamstown Theater Festival, Wohl did not believe they wanted something big enough for Broadway. “I was like, ‘I’ll just write some tiny little thing that’ll be produced in a closet somewhere.’ And they were like, ‘No, no, do a thing that could have this scale,’” she said, adding that she believes artists, just as much as institutions, need to encourage other artists to think big. “Plays like Slave Play hopefully will inspire other people to think, ‘My work could end up here.’ ”
Right now, Broadway—a realm that, to many outsiders, might look more inclusive than Hollywood—finds itself in the midst of a paradigm shift. “I feel like we’re having a different conversation than we were having a few years ago,” Wohl said. “I feel like audiences are there for it. They want to come see the work and that keeps getting proven time and time again, with plays like Heidi Schreck’s play last season. People are hungry for it. That all makes me really hopeful. And then I get really devastated when I think about the fact that I’m the only woman with an original play on Broadway and how absurd and insane that is. Sometimes I think when people feel their power slipping away, they can cling to it more intensely. That scares me, too.”
“People said, ‘Don’t write a play for older people, they won’t be able to do it, it’ll be a nightmare,” Wohl said. “I just hate hearing ‘don’t do something.’ That always makes me want to do it.”
Related: New Faces: Will Hochman, The Sound Inside‘s Tortured Soul