Zachary Burrell, Janet Essenpreis, & Bobby Conte in Empty Nest. Photo courtesy Derby Dinner Playhouse.
By Lawrence Roman
Directed by Bekki Jo Schneider
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In America, in the 1980’s, adults began living at home with their parents after college – sometimes temporarily, sometimes with more…permanence. Playwright Lawrence Roman mined the concept for situation comedy in 1983, called Alone Together. Now going by Empty Nest, it opened last week at Derby Dinner Playhouse.
Helene (Janet Essenpreis) and George (David Myers) pack their youngest of three sons; Keith (Bill Hanna) off to college in Seattle, anxious to take full advantage of the first real privacy afforded them by practicing l’amour in front of the fire. Oldest son Michael (Zachary Burrell) interrupts them nearly in flagrante, having quit his teaching position at MIT to move back into his old room. Hot on his heels comes middle son Elliott (Bobby Conte), in flight from a disintegrating marriage. And the icing on the cake is the random, unexpected arrival of Janie Johnson (Katherine Martin), a young college student who met Keith the day before and was told by him she could have his room. His parents wouldn’t mind.
Despite the reality of the trend, which continues today, Empty Nest remains determinedly set in 1983, a world without cell phones – there is much business about adding 2 additional phones lines and a clunky system of colored lights to track the rings, and a world where parents could still express comic outrage about kids returning home: “We didn’t raise sons, we raised homing pigeons!” Helene exclaims, an example of the preponderance of one-liners that make the play an appealing, laugh-out-loud comedy.
Some of the dialogue also has bite, but there isn’t a lot of depth in these characters. This is Helene and George’s story, and they are the most developed, and right at the end, we learn something about Michael’s true motivation for abandoning MIT that makes him more interesting, but as written, Elliot remains a superficially drawn cad, and Keith disappears too quickly to be a meaningful part of the action. As for Janie, while she is heavily objectified and outfitted with revealing costumes, she also is allowed a bracing degree of common sense and independence; the first of the three interlopers to pick up on the conflict and take action to remove herself from the house. Katherine Martin brings an abundance of effervescent charm to the role, but also lets you see the mind at work.
Janet Essenpreis and David Myers are veterans of many Derby Dinner seasons, and they swap dialogue like the pros they are, earning their laughs with timing and energy and carrying the burden together with skill. The second act raises the specter of something more troubling between them, but the production drops that potential pretty quickly, missing the opportunity to invest the breezy family comedy with a little more emotional heft.
Zachary Burrell gives Michael an appropriate manic, obsessive drive, his long hair and wiry frame a perfect embodiment of the conflicted character. Bobby Conte is the right degree of obnoxious as Elliot, whose mercenary expediency in hitting on women earns little sympathy with the audience. Bill Hanna is quick and bright as Keith, but, again, his brief time onstage frames the story with little real impact on the central conceit of the plot.
Empty Nest is sure to be a winner for Derby Dinner’s loyal subscribers, who will no doubt identify with the Butler mater and paterfamilias in meaningful ways. The performance I attended was filled with the laughter of recognition, and the crowd seemed to leave satisfied.
May 31 – July 9, 2017
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.