GLOUCESTER — As a play, Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons” is no better than so-so, certainly not in a class with her superb “Small Mouth Sounds.”
But as a vehicle for the invaluable duo of Paula Plum and Richard Snee? Well, that’s a different matter. Plum and Snee have a way of expanding any play’s horizons.
A comedy-drama about a woman who decides she wants out of her stultifying marriage after nearly 50 years, “Grand Horizons” is a pretty good match for the strengths of the real-life wife and husband playing the about-to-uncouple couple.
Plum and Snee have acted together many times, on many stages, over the decades. “Grand Horizons” represents the third time they’ve performed together at Gloucester Stage Company, where Plum is currently serving as interim artistic director. The company’s leadership post was previously occupied by Robert Walsh, who’s directing “Grand Horizons.”
Whenever “Grand Horizons” detours into predictable, seen-it-before situations, Plum and Snee draw on their separate and conjoined strengths to enliven the proceedings with a few necessary jolts of tension and surprise.
Plum has a rare ability — she demonstrates it again here — to virtually stop your breath with the life-or-death urgency she imparts to the quandaries her characters face. That quality dovetails nicely with Snee’s skill at nonchalantly wringing every ounce of humor from a line. (He’s no slouch in the dramatic department, either.)
Your interest is likely to wane considerably, however, whenever the spotlight shifts from these two stars, and the supporting characters clamorously take their turns at center stage.
Wohl’s gifts as a playwright are abundant and apparent, but here she has relied on an overly schematic, everybody-gets-a-speech structure that pulls focus from the two people we care most about and want most to understand. Snee’s Bill in particular remains too opaque.
Set in an independent living community whose name provides the play’s title, the play begins with an ordinary dinnertime tableau — ordinary, that is, right up to the moment when Plum’s Nancy says to Bill: “I think I would like a divorce.” Bill, seeming unfazed, replies: “All right.”
Their adult sons are plenty fazed. The news lands like a hand grenade on Brian (Greg Maraio) and Ben (Jeremy Belize), with reverberations also felt by Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Marissa Stewart). The sons immediately start trying to puzzle out the reason, and even the point, of their parents’ imminent split.
“I mean, you’re almost 80,” Ben notes. “Like, how much else even — is there?”
Nancy would like to find out; perhaps Bill has already begun to do so? He’s convinced himself he can launch a career in stand-up comedy. There are some amusing moments when Bill starts trying, when he’s alone, to shape the marital rupture into a comic monologue. (Based on what we hear, it’s long odds that Bill will craft what stand-up comics call a “tight ten,” or even a tight five.)
Nancy’s ambitions are larger and deeper, and have to do with missed opportunities, lost time, a figure from the past, perhaps an inchoate longing.
The fallout of their decision to divorce filters into the personal lives of their children. Brian is gay, single, and has difficulty maintaining relationships — or even starting them, as we see in a scene with a potential romantic partner (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia).
Ben, meanwhile, is prone to congratulating himself for being the more stable and responsible of the two brothers. But he too is emotionally dependent on his parents — or at least dependent on seeing them only in a certain context.
As for Jess, she spots potentially troubling signs for her own future in the family dynamics revealed as turmoil engulfs her in-laws. But when Jess lights into the two brothers in Act Two, it still comes across as contrived. And when June Kfoury shows up in Act Two as a resident of a nearby development, her identity and function within the plot will not come as a surprise.
It is Nancy who intrigues us with her own capacity for surprise. Her dilemma is that her family fundamentally does not see her. She is invisible not just to Bill, but also to their two ostensibly adult offspring.
The word “whole” occurs 18 times in the script; Wohl clearly wants us to think of the cost of a life unlived, or only partly lived. “I will be a whole person to you,” Nancy says fiercely to son Brian at one point. “I will.”
We believe her. If husband Bill knows what’s good for him, he will too.
Play by Bess Wohl. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester. Through Aug. 21. $25-$54. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com