By the time I finally found freeFall Theatre’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf worth my attention — about two-thirds of the way through its 90 minutes — I was so bored and skeptical, I mostly wanted permission to leave St. Petersburg with what remained of my love of contemporary drama.
Maybe that was the trouble — Café aspires to be contemporary, but its modernist despair is about 90 years out of date, and its adulation of Ernest Hemingway — a brilliant writer but an arrogant man — is hardly likely to mean much to an audience member in what (I hope) is post-macho America. Then there’s the problem that the play’s central gambit — the cooking of a first-class meal for a restaurateur who is starving himself to death — quickly becomes predictable, and never really takes on the sort of metaphorical resonance that author Michael Hollinger seems to want for it. Add secondary characters without an ounce of dramatic weight and a random collection of weak slapstick jokes, and what you’ve got is a recipe for overcooked ennui topped with grated insignificance. I can be excused if I wasn’t anticipating dessert.
But dessert did come — when the play suddenly changed course and offered a real (not theoretical) dramatic problem, and a real (not merely talked-about) elusive woman. Which is another way of saying that once Roxanne Fay walks on stage in the role of Mademoiselle, Café becomes genuinely interesting and suspenseful and even touching. Those waiters out of a Milton Berle sketch? Now we can happily ignore them. Those “existential” claims that life is a total pain not worth enduring? Now it gives way to one of the reasons so many of us endure, namely, love of another human. As the play focuses more and more on the relationship between Monsieur and Mademoiselle, all its doomy pretentions give way to a moving duet, influenced, true, by The Sun Also Rises, but offering real pathos and emotional truth nonetheless. Does this make the play a success? No, not by a long shot. But a little redemption is better than none at all.
To get back to the regrettable start of the drama: Monsieur (aka Victor) owns the best restaurant in Paris, but has decided, because life is intolerable and so on, to starve himself to death. When he tells the chef and waiters at his restaurant of his intention, they beg him to reconsider, and then come up with a plan that they hope will change his mind. They will cook him the most sublime of seven-course dinners, but after naming each course, will present him only with an empty plate. Somehow this is supposed to reawaken in him the will to live or, at least, to eat.
As the strange masquerade proceeds, we learn a few things about Monsieur and the other characters. Waiter Claude is married to increasingly exasperated waitress Mimi, but secretly pines for waiter Antoine. Chef Gaston is painfully in love with Mimi, and is, like everyone else but the stammering Antoine, dreadfully unhappy. Monsieur, obsessed with the figure of Hemingway, usually comes to his restaurant in tandem with Mademoiselle, but after a trip to Madrid is, for unspoken reasons, alone. We hear quotes from Hemingway’s novels and notice that photos of Papa are displayed above the door to the restaurant’s kitchen. We hear the details of a bullfight and are supposed (I think) to see it as a metaphor for the beautiful cruelty of our savage existence. We are asked to feel like Jake Barnes about this world: It’d be nice if only it weren’t killing us. We are told that Hemingway (this is the early ’60s) has just shot himself.
Primarily responsible for communicating this ’20s vision is Patrick Ryan Sullivan, who plays Victor as an angst-ridden figure out of a novel by you-know-who. This is one of those performances which is precisely what the script calls for, and therefore goes wrong just as the script does. So too with the married servers, played by Matt McGee and Natalie Symons: they give their all to every joke, no matter how flat or unfunny. John Lombardi is fatiguing as a one-note chef, and Greyson Lewis has little more than his stutter and his not-amusing tuba playing to give him dimension.
Only Fay rises above the action to be luminously alive; fortunately Hollinger hasn’t found a stereotype to imitate here. Director Eric Davis is far too faithful to this deeply flawed text; but Greg Bierce’s elegant set is easy on the eyes, as are Davis’ costumes. Chris Crawford’s fine lighting makes the play’s faults all too clear.
I’ve seen two other Hollinger plays: the wonderful Opus (2006) and the abominable Incorruptible (1996). It’s all too obvious with which one Café (1994) belongs.
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