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Tried and true formulas work in ‘A Soldier’s Play’ and ‘Grand Horizons’

David Alan Grier, left photo, in Roundabout Theatre Company's “A Soldier’s Play,” and James Cromwell and Jane Alexander in Second Stage Theater’s “Grand Horizons.” (Joan Marcus/Roundabout Theatre Company / Second Stage Theater)

NEW YORK — On Broadway, what's old is always born again. Sometimes quite concretely, as in the case of the sturdy revival of "A Soldier's Play," Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning military-murder procedural. And other times, an entirely new play just feels like a vintage product, as audiences might intuit with "Grand Horizons," Bess Wohl's equally well-built, dysfunctional family comedy.

Stocking the shelves with the familiar can have a salutary effect on audiences. It’s theater as comfy sweater: You wrap yourself in the threads of themes and rhythms and characters you know so well that the struggle for deeper connection is put on layaway. One comes to find, in years of watching people watch plays, how majorly rewarded a playwright can be for the execution of a relatively minor seduction.

That is not to say that “A Soldier’s Play,” which had its official opening at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre earlier this week, and “Grand Horizons,” whose opening occurred Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theater, should be discounted as mere genre pieces. Fuller’s 1981 drama, set in and around the barracks of a black unit languishing on a Louisiana Army base during World War II, retains some crackle, although the long reign of crime-solving TV series has drained it of uniqueness. And Wohl, author of such inventive fare as “Small Mouth Sounds,” proves a particularly gifted student of a type of situation comedy that has been an American mainstay on these shores since something like the landing of the Mayflower.

The enjoyably acted “Grand Horizons,” directed by Leigh Silverman (last year’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” with Daniel Radcliffe), is blessed with savvy performances, particularly by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell, as the long-married residents of an independent-living development who have decided to divorce. The decision freaks out their grown sons (Ben McKenzie and Michael Urie) while prompting their pregnant therapist daughter-in-law (Ashley Park) to attempt psychological triage.

One set, seven characters — including amusing turns by Priscilla Lopez and Maulik Pancholy as romantic interlopers — and a plot tailored to the tastes of charter-bus groups: a commercial Broadway producer’s eternal catnip! (In this case, though, the production is brought to you by nonprofit Second Stage Theatre.) Alexander, in the guise of a beleaguered woman tired of catering to a cranky and unreliable mate and two sons who crave a perpetual mommy, assumes the role with a delightful, resentful deadpan that detours at times into off-color, even scandalizing, wistfulness.

Cromwell makes for a perfect dyspeptic sparring partner: If there is anything risibly fresh here, it is Wohl’s bursting the bubble of joy in everlasting matrimony. “On Golden Pond” this ain’t. The ancillary roles conform dependably to formula, with Urie supplying another funny coat to a type he’s painted before, that of an emotionally needy mama’s boy — albeit the twist here is you get to see how undermining and manipulative a mama’s boy can be.

Wohl has written a plum part for Alexander, and it’s a pleasure to see her in action, much as it is a satisfying encounter with Blair Underwood, as an officer called in to investigate the killing of David Alan Grier’s self-loathing bully of a sergeant, in “A Soldier’s Play.” Later made into a movie (“A Soldier’s Story”) featuring a young Denzel Washington as a proud, grudge-bearing soldier in the unit, “A Soldier’s Play” is notable for a plot exposing the rampant prejudice that consigned black men to second-class military status. It also tackles the tensions among Northern and Southern blacks of the time, as embodied by Grier’s Sgt. Waters, who bulliesa genial private, C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson).

Director Kenny Leon has an accomplished eye and ear for the camaraderie of the enlisted men, frustrated at the Army’s delays in sending them into combat. The production suffers at times, though, from a less than fully activated tension. Some of this owes to Nicholson’s muted portrayal of C.J. and, as a result, a lack of intensity in the antagonism between him and Grier.

A magnetic Underwood holds the proceedings together smartly. His Capt. Davenport, undaunted by the objections of the commanding officer (Jerry O’Connell, well-cast as an insecure leader), gives manly heft to the touchstone role.

The heat generated by “A Soldier’s Play” and the laughs by “Grand Horizons” arise not out of particularly surprising plot turns or exotic personages. There’s not much here that those with even a moderate diet of theatergoing will not have tasted before. But it’s familiar fare that is well-served, and something must be said for the enduring, polished appeal to a playgoer’s conditioned responses.

A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller. Directed by Kenny Leon. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Dede Aylie; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. With McKinley Belcher III, Billy Eugene Jones. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $59-$299. Through March 15 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42d St., New York. 212-719-1300.

Grand Horizons, by Bess Wohl. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Set, Clint Ramos; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Palmer Hefferan. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $59-$199. Through March 1 at Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., New York. 212-541-4516.