Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In The Empty Nesters, currently in production at Z Below Theatre in San Francisco, Greg and Frances (real-life couple JW Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker) to the edge of the abyssboth literally and figuratively. Their Grand Canyon adventure (which consists mainly of complaining/bickering while waiting in line) comes after dropping off their youngest at college. The daughter was apparently fine with the separation, telling them "I think I'm, like, good." as her farewell. Frances? Significantly less fine.
While Mom is hoping for long, daily phone chats and frequent texting, Dad's hoping with their house finally barren of teenagers, some of Frances's formerly divided attentions will be lavished on him. Frances's pronouncement of potential dissolution put an end to that possibility. But despite that news, GregESPN-addicted, emotionally clueless male that he issomehow rises to the occasion. He attempts, albeit clumsily at first, to fathom what Frances sees as broken in their relationship. "Maybe I can fix it," he suggests, to which she rejoins, "I don't want you to fix itI want you to notice it!"
The first two scenes in The Empty Nesters take place in public settings: on line at Skywalk, and sitting in a café. Greg and Frances's interactions are, therefore, understandably somewhat guarded and surface level. Once they decamp to their hotel room, the armor comes off and the two have the space and privacy to expose themselves more nakedly. (Almost literally in Greg's case.) It is here that Garret Jon Groenveld's play (which was originally developed and presented at the PlayGround Festival of New Works) starts to take off.
For it is in that Southwest-themed hotel room that Groenveld's characters begin to start to really feel genuine. Groenveld has a good ear for dialogue and a cunning insight into what long-term relationships can become. You could hear the laughter of recognition coming from couples within the theater, as Greg and Frances displayed behaviors that many married people fall into. As when Frances tells Greg she's "great" when she's anything but. Or when Frances complains that she's learned important news about Greg's life only when he tells someone else in front of her. How he raises sensitive subjects only when they have an audience, in order to temper potentially negative responses.
Though Groenveld studied with Edward Albee, this tale of marital strife is not nearly as dark as I perhaps have made it sound. Groenveld's playing this for laughs, as well as emotional depth. And he succeeds. Mostly. Because the deeper truth of his storya couple who have lost their way emotionallyis so dark, the comedy that tempers this somber prospect could perhaps use an extra dollop of wackiness. But there's real heart on display here.
The Empty Nesters runs through June 11, 2016, at Z Below Theatre, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$58 and are available online at www.EmptyNestersPlay.com or by calling (866) 811-4111.