Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "An Empty Plate at the Cafe du Grand Bouef" at the ArdenTheatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

Though it delivers a “feast of adjectives and adverbs,” Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf offers little in the way of plot, character development, or (dare I say) entertainment. More of a grad school exercise in animated storytelling than a real play, the Arden’s production of Hollinger’s play only left me hungry for more filling and creative fare.

The Arden Theatre is celebrating their twentieth anniversary in a number of ways. They opened their season with a smash production of Sondheim’s Assassins. In January, they will present a world premiere of Wittenberg, the much-anticipated follow-up to their hit Daedelus of a few years ago. And to solidify and commemorate their long-standing collaboration with local playwright Michael Hollinger, they’re currently reviving An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, the first of the six works that they’ve premiered.

I didn’t see Empty Plate when the Arden first presented it in 1994, but after watching this production, I can’t imagine how it ever launched Michael Hollinger’s career as a nationally produced, nationally recognized playwright.

Empty Plate opens upon the aptly named (I won’t spoil it) interior of the Café du Grand Bouef (Café of the Big Ox), a four star Parisian restaurant devoted solely to the gastronomic satisfaction of one individual, Victor (Douglas Rees), a wealthy American expatriate and former publishing magnate. As much the traveler as gourmand, Victor keeps the restaurant’s temperamental staff on-call 24/7, occasionally dining in to share the latest, fascinating stories of his pan-European exploits.

And that’s about it.

Well, not quite, as Hollinger invokes a pair of twists—one major, one minor—to make this particular evening different from all of Victor’s prior visits. The minor twist: the restaurant’s former busboy (we never meet him) has died, and the staff’s closeted bi-sexual head waiter Claude (Ian Merrill Peakes) has hired the object of his desire Antoine (James William Ijames) as a replacement.

The major twist: Victor, despondent over an unrevealed crisis, has returned from Madrid without his traditional dinner guest Miss Berger (Mikaela Kafka), and now refuses to eat, instead deciding to starve himself to death in the seat of his culinary paradise. Over the course of 90 (long) minutes, the staff tries to restore his “appetite for life,” tempting him with descriptions of a series of “empty plates,” while Victor relates both the story of his life “from birth to a bullfight,” and the present tale of woe that’s caused his despair.

A few plot-lets break up the monotony of his narrative. In his intermittent lust for Antoine, Claude has severely neglected his wife Mimi (Mary McCool), who longs to travel as Victor does. The chef Gaston (Richard Ruiz) despises Claude and secretly pines for Mimi, but fears telling her. Victor longs to die. Antoine, the only self-described happy character, simply longs to work as a journalist.

Now that’s really all there is to this play.

Hollinger conceived Empty Plate as a gourmet-inspired poetic meditation on longing. However, just as longing must be felt, in a play it must also be shown, and while Hollinger masters the art of culinary description (perhaps paying homage to the first careers of actors and playwrights everywhere), and cleverly inserts allusions to stories and snippets from Hemingway, the evening contains no action whatsoever. Like Victor’s twin narratives about life and loss, it’s all told to the audience, with little acted out or shown.

The actors struggle valiantly to overcome this, most notably the energetic Peakes and neurotically amusing McCool, playing the only characters (besides Victor) with enough lines and stage time to do anything with their roles. Dees emanates a certain type of mournful vivacity (indicative of his former self), and his placid, sarcasm heavy demeanor adds color and humor (though over all, this production lost a great deal of the humor of Hollinger’s script). But in the one passage where he’s called upon to act out the tragedy that’s befallen him, he falters, though it’s probably not his fault, as the script calls on the cast to convincingly portray the spectacle of a bull slaughtered in a bullfight.

Like the series of empty plates symbolizing the food left in the kitchen, all I can think is what a waste: of the talent of this cast, Jerold R. Forsyth’s intimate lighting, and Donald Eastman’s gorgeous café interior, the walls themselves a series of oil-painting panels bound by deep mahoghany columns.

As a short story, Hollinger’s play would’ve succeeded very well, and it’s not hard to imagine what Nolen felt when first reading it, that it “leapt off the page at him.” But on the stage it plays like a grad student’s experiment in “animated storytelling.” And while I might expect to entertain children with a main character who does little more than sit in a chair and tell stories, Empty Plate doesn’t satisfy the needs of theatre for grown-ups, or even for those looking for passable entertainment.

In one of her last lines, Mimi comments on one of Victor’s stories, that “it was very eventful.” If only I could say the same of Hollinger’s play, which in the end, only sent me home hungry for more fulfilling theatrical fare.

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