Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, now running at Main Street Theater, is a most unusual comedy. Wildly ambitious, this play, set in Paris in 1961, invokes some of American literature's most familiar images. Ernest Hemingway, a Parisian cafe, a lonely suicide, a bloody bullfight, impotence and existential angst all play a part in this 100-minute one-act about a man who wrestles his psychological demons during one long and lonely night in Paris. But revered as they may be, many of the motifs running throughout this script feel oddly out of place. They come off as over-the-top melodrama, seeming almost quaint against the backdrop of our current consumer-driven world. On the other hand, there's so much wonderful clowning by this story's collection of quirky characters -- who come to dazzlingly hysterical life with the help of director Rebecca Greene Udden's wonderfully capable cast -- that it's hard not to come away from this peculiar play feeling strangely satisfied.
The premise spins around an expatriate American newspaperman named Victor (Charles Tanner), who shows up at a cafe one night with a most unusual request. He wants simply to tell his life story while he slowly starves himself to death. "I've lost my appetite," he announces. "I've decided to not eat till I die." Over time, we learn that he actually owns the cafe and that he bought it with his inherited millions so that he can be its sole patron. There is no menu, as the cafe is always ready to serve its only customer whenever and whatever his heart desires. To that end, Victor has employed a staff of clowns who live to serve him. They are deeply disturbed by their patron's last desire.
There's Gaston (Robert Leeds), the chef, whose genius in the kitchen is surpassed by only his knowledge of the ghastly effects of starving oneself to death: "It makes your eyes start to jiggle in your head!" Lovely Mimi (Celeste Roberts), dressed in black-and-white waitress attire, thrills when she gets near "Monsieur" and gushes over his stories about his travels. Mimi flusters about trying to make Monsieur change his mind about starving, only to be enraged by her husband, Claude (played with fabulously scene-stealing gusto by James Belcher), the cafe's manager, who barks orders to everyone in the place. While insisting that Monsieur must eat, Claude is trying to teach a young and bumbling trainee named Antoine (Andrew Ruthven) Table Waiting 101. But Victor ignores Claude and instead turns to Antoine, who fails at everything until he starts taking down Victor's story in careful dictation on his waiter's pad.
It's unclear exactly what has gone wrong in Victor's life, what has gotten him so down that he wants nothing more than to end it all. But we do know that he's got an unhealthy attachment to the suicidal Hemingway. Victor is constantly quoting the granddaddy of modern American literature. And we know that "Mademoiselle," a mysterious woman who always accompanies Victor, is strangely absent this night.
Nothing his staff says will change Victor's mind about not eating. But he does acquiesce to one strange request: He'll let them tempt him with a make-believe dinner. They bring out empty plate after empty plate, describing the dishes they wish they were serving in so succulent a verbiage, it's impossible not to come out of this show hungry as a bear. It's "a feast of adjectives and adverbs," as one character says. From soup to salad (eaten last in this cafe), the dinner of rabbit soup, vodka-tomato sorbet and roasted pheasant is talked about in deliciously sensuous poetry. The tomatoes are "buxom," the oil "virginal."
As head waiter, Belcher enjoys every minute he spends curving his lips around syllables as though each were a bite of manna. He leads the terrific cast of foppish staff members as it comes to light that they're every bit as troubled as Victor. Love has run amok in this place. Everyone is in the throes of unrequited lust. One has thought long and hard about his own suicide. A gun appears, as do other means of death. And it all crescendos into a re-enactment of a bloody bullfight, red cape and all.
Frankly, Victor and his troubles sound narcissistic when held up next to those of his sadder and funnier staff, which undermines some of the possibilities of Hollinger's tale. It's hard to feel much sympathy for a man who's so rich he can pay four people to do nothing but listen to him whine about his sorry life all night long. And Tanner's slow and measured line delivery doesn't add much urgency to Victor's conflict. But to be fair, Tanner doesn't have much to work with, even at the bitter end, when Victor finds out that things aren't what he thinks.
It's the staff who has the real problems. Happily, their struggles get as much time on stage as Victor's, and they make for a sinfully tasty treat.
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