Friday, May 13, 2016

"The Empty Nesters"

The Empty Nesters
Garret Jon Groenveld

JW Walker & Pamela Gaye Walker
She: “We’re going to have to start to have grown-up conversations.”
He: “About what?”
She: “Grown up things.”
He: “Then let’s talk.”
She: “About what.”
He: “I don’t know.”

Such back-and-forth, circle exchanges often make the interactions of wife Frannie and husband Greg sound like scenes from a marital version of Sartre’s No Exit.  Having just dropped off their younger daughter at college, they now are facing a lifetime of just themselves; and the prospects are not looking all that good at first glance, especially when Frannie turns to Greg while waiting in a Grand Canyon tourist line and mentions matter-of-factly, “I’m thinking about leaving you” (setting off other circular spins on the difference between “thinking about” and “wanting to”). 

Flown Coop Productions presents The Empty Nesters by San Francisco playwright Garret Jon Groenveld in the intimate setting of Z Below.  Featuring the married-in-real-life, veteran-acting team of Pamela Gaye Walker and JW Walker (over forty times in plays together but not in twenty years and parents of now-grown kids), the seventy-five minute play often feels like the real-time, back-and-forth exchanges that many married couples might have in a similar situation.  One gets the feeling, in fact, that these very two people may be reenacting some past moments of their own long-together, married lives, so natural they flow in bickering repartee, pressing each other’s well-known hot buttons along the way.

It is the audience’s familiarity from their own experiences of what is said (and not said) between this husband and wife that leads to much laughter when simple-enough phrases are repeated over and again: 
• “Did you lock the car?” 
• “This line is long ... Why are we doing this?”
• “Why didn’t you get the barbeque sauce like I asked?” 
• “You should have seen that if I said I am doing ‘great,’ I was not really doing ‘great’.”
Subjects like how much he spends time watching TV sports (“You have spent entire Sundays watching other people play cards”) or how she is bringing up once again that they should really see a marriage counselor (to which he says, “I’m pretty sure I’m bad at the things this therapist thinks are good”) are perhaps why I noticed some poking in the ribs or exchange of sheepish smirks occurring between audience couples. 

Many of the interchanges follow traditional sex roles that perhaps still fit Boomer age parents but may seem a bit dated for younger audience members (like how he shows up in boxer shorts ready to jump in bed for a romp, only to find her curled up ready only for a nap).  But overall, these are the very things couples have repeatedly said and done for a long time ... and still say and do.  George and Frannie are just rewinding our own old tapes and forcing us to listen to how we might sound at times when life becomes just a bit too routine and partners become close to expendable without our realizing it.

Much of the tension and the sudden raising of relationship questions emerges from Frannie’s realization, “I’m still a mother but no one left to mother.”  George has moved on (or so he claims) to a house free of kid drama.  Frannie is stuck staring with teary eyes at a cell phone that is not ringing from a daughter that is not calling.  (“I know where she is ... She is not where she should be ... She’s not here.”)  Together, we watch as they struggle whether or not to recognize and care how the other is dealing with the new reality that now it is just the two of them again. 

The Walkers are so good at portraying Greg and Frannie that it is easy to forget that they are actually acting.  The exchanges are never that far-flung from realities we recognize, delivered and conveyed in ways that rarely feel scripted or directed.  Much of that credit must also go to Richard Seyd who has directed a seamless flow and movement through their afternoon at the Canyon, in a café, and back at the hotel.  Kim Rooker’s backdrop projections help set the scenes in creative ways.

What is missing, however, is that the energy and excitement of the exchanges begins to dwindle as the short play progresses.  Every thing is so familiar that not much is added about the subject of the play’s title.  I felt as if I had already experienced myself or read in some magazine most of what George and Frannie are going through as a couple now left alone with no kids around.  I did not walk away with any new insights, and I came close to being bored with it all by the end, even though I admired the efforts and excellence of the production itself.  I think where things start to go a bit flat is in Mr. Groenveld’s script itself.

Having said that, not a lot of time must be invested in seeing The Empty Nesters, and seeing this husband-wife couple reunited on stage is a special treat.  Flown the Coop Productions provides a chance for some mirror looking by us all and a chance to chuckle at ourselves as well as at Greg and Frannie.

Rating: 3 E

The Empty Nesters continues through June 11, 2016 as a Flown the Coop Production, staged at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 866-811-4111.

Photos by David Allen

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