It takes considerable skill - to say nothing of nerve - to steal a show from the likes of Brad Hauskins, Adam Michael Lewis, and Eddie Staver III. But in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Empty Nest, actress Ashley Catherine Schmitt arrives halfway through the production, introduces herself to her co-stars, tucks playwright Lawrence Roman's comedy into her leg warmers, and all but dashes off with it. The play itself is too featherweight (albeit agreeably so) for this to be considered grand larceny, but it's certainly grand; Schmitt is like the guest you don't remember inviting who winds up being the life of the party.
Set in Los Angeles circa 1983 - an era that allows for some fabulously cringe-inducing costumes by designer Gregory Hiatt - Empty Nest opens with fiftysomething married couple George (Hauskins) and Helene (Vrenda Lee) sending their youngest (Tristan Layne Tapscott's Keith) off to college, having already raised two older sons: Lewis' Michael, a math professor at MIT, and Staver's Elliott, happily married in Houston. Not five minutes after Keith's departure, the relieved (and randy) George and Helene begin making plans for road trips and long-delayed lovemaking, only to have their coitus interrupted, first by the return of Michael, who's left his university position, and then by Elliott, who's left his wife. And then, not long after, there's a knock on the door.
Yet it isn't Keith who's arrived (not yet, at any rate), but the chirpy, vivacious co-ed Janie Johnson (Schmitt), whom the playwright rather clumsily drops into the proceedings, and whose presence, you soon realize, Empty Nest couldn't do without. There's really not much to Roman's play - it's basically two hours of parental complaints and childish obliviousness - but Janie's appearance throws a neat twist into the material, and Schmitt's happy guilelessness is wholly refreshing; with her Daisy Dukes, exposed midriff, and aforementioned leg warmers, Janie's sunny, empty-headed sweetheart adds a jolt of sex-farce bawdiness to the family-sitcom setup.
Before long, Janie is parading in and out of bedrooms and practicing yoga positions in the living room, and Schmitt imbues her every daffy routine with a spirit of reckless innocence - she's an accidental sexpot. (Her co-stars also get great mileage from their reactions to Janie's scantily clad cluelessness.) The character may be a dip - and the actress performs comic wonders with Janie's questionable methods of polishing silverware and folding napkins - but Schmitt's role turns out to be more surprising than you might anticipate, and so, in the end, is Empty Nest itself.
Snappily directed by Patrick Kearns, the show is obviously designed as an easily digestible entertainment for Circa '21's older demographic. (On Friday, there was hearty applause when Hauskins' patriarch finally told off his ungrateful mooch of a son, as well as an appalled gasp when Elliott, only half-jokingly, told his folks they were lousy role models.) Yet while Roman's comedy is filled with the sorts of conventional punchlines and tidy resolutions you expect from these things, Empty Nest is never insulting, and it's frequently even witty, as Kearns has guided his actors to more eccentrically human performances than works of this type generally allow.
No one here has a trickier role than Lewis, who has to be convincing as an unapologetic slacker who's also a mathematical genius who's also dumb enough to set fire to his room during a misbegotten science experiment. The actor, though, delivers an enthusiastic and rather beautifully thought-out portrayal; with his oddball comic bravado masking a frightened aimlessness, Lewis' Michael is a sitcom Biff Loman. Staver's egocentric horn-dog is the more broadly amusing role and the actor (with assistance from his Preppy Handbook/Miami Vice wardrobe) generates enormous laughs, but he always grounds the character in reality - you believe Elliott's every dopey-ass utterance. (Tapscott, meanwhile, has too little to do, but as usual, does it with thoroughly enjoyable naturalism.)
As Empty Nest's harried-verging-on-apoplectic mom, Lee doesn't give even one predictable reading, and she hits notes of riotous impatience when Helene has a few drinks in her; the actress deserves an award merely for her blotto directive to "look closelier." And the only relative disappointment in the cast, in truth, is Hauskins - not because he isn't funny, but because he's the only performer you catch actively trying to be funny.
The actor deserves major props for (as he's often called to do) stepping into his role halfway through the rehearsal process, and he has sensational moments, especially when George's back goes out prior to foreplay. But he doesn't yet seem entirely comfortable in the part, and appears to be acting on a different wavelength from that of his co-stars; compared to the deliveries of the others, Hauskins' punchlines sound distractingly like punchlines. There is, however, plenty of time for him to get comfortable in Empty Nest, and within an ensemble this inspired, and a show this unexpectedly engaging, that seems less a possibility than an inevitability.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733, extension 2.