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“The Empty Nesters” at the Zephyr: Domestic Drama Lacks Oomph

In this era of the rise of the helicopter parent, it is genuinely fascinating to begin thinking about what these folks will do when their hovering is no longer needed and their kid goes confidently (one hopes) off to college or a career in another part of the country. Indeed, this is the major enticement in going to see “The Empty Nesters,” by Garret Jon Groenveld, at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose: a chance to see how someone plays with the concept.

The problem is, the play itself proves repetitive, and the direction often proves static.  The two performers – a long-married couple coming back to the stage after years doing other things in the entertainment industry – exhibit such a lack of genuine chemistry onstage that the necessary sympathy for their situation doesn’t gel. The set is clever, but has its own issues. In short though there is a lot of potential in this thing, it simply isn’t realized.

We meet Greg and Frances as they stand in line for the the Sky Bridge at the Grand Canyon, on a planned vacation intended to get their minds off of the fact they just dropped their last child off at college. He is grumpy and unreasonable. She is obsessed with the fact their daughter has not called to check in. When she suddenly questions their future together – in line at this tourist attraction – a conversation begins which moves from the bridge to a cafe to their hotel. We follow.

The script is not funny, even in places it should be, but it is not tragic. It has these people saying the same things to each other – the same lines even – in several settings, sometimes with an added insight, but often not. There is a limited physicality in the meandering script, and director Richard Syed has opted for set change rather than much in the way of action to add to the piece. So they stand and talk, then sit and talk, then sit and stand and talk about what they have already talked about, with a few enhancements.

John (JW) Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker are the couple. They play the two as very realistic, with the pauses and tonalities of an ordinary conversation, which makes it surprisingly uninteresting. Neither gets wildly emotional. Neither becomes overly self-revelatory even in movement or delivery. Naturalism can be great, but in this production it just makes things rather ploddy.

The design of the production, by William Cone, uses impressive projections to create detail in the changing settings, while a beautifully orchestrated movement of furniture happens onstage. Still, lighting designer Donny Jackson and animator of those projections Andrew Jimenez should have checked to be sure that their projector was high enough in the ceiling (or behind a scrim looking toward the audience) so that the projections would not occasionally hit the upper part of John Walker’s head. It is not convincing to listen to a man talking sincerely about his life while part of the hotel room wall is shining just above his ear.

In short, “The Empty Nesters” is well-meaning, but it just doesn’t ever really engage. Sad to say, even at 75 uninterrupted minutes, it is really too long for the material – for what there is in it to say.

What: “The Empty Nesters”  When: through February 17, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles  How Much: $35 general, $45 reserved  Info: 866-811-4111 or http://www.EmptyNestersPlay.com

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