By Perry Tannenbaum
November 12, 2015, Charlotte, NC – Sacrifice and service are the specialties of the house in Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, a Franco-American concoction that alternately mocks and reveres the Lost Generation élan of Ernest Hemingway. The play is particularly beloved in Cornelius at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center, where it was the first production scheduled at the Westmoreland Road storefront in June 2009. Yet the local debut was staged four years earlier by the BareBones Theatre Group at a real warehouse in Charlotte’s SouthEnd.
There are interesting contrasts between the two productions, demonstrating the latitude offered to directors by the script. The BareBones version directed by Chad Calvert (the current production’s graphic designer) emphasized the macho elements of the Hemingway-esque protagonist and the French elements of the ceremony, turning the Grand Boeuf into the snootiest of restaurants. At the Warehouse production directed by Jim Esposito, service is far more frayed and frenetic, and our hero is more notable for his tragic impotence and suicidal self-loathing.
There is no menu at the Café du Grand Boeuf, new waiter-in-training Antoine is instructed by the impeccable maître d’ Claude, because the establishment is committed to serving “Monsieur,” the restaurant’s owner and sole patron, anything and everything he desires. Much to Claude and his wife Mimi’s alarm, Monsieur shows up alone without his longtime lady friend. “This does not usually happen,” Claude tells Antoine, which describes the utmost of catastrophes for the prideful headwaiter.
Like the humor that fueled so many Marx Brothers shticks, more and more breaches of chichi decorum are yet to come. Monsieur has returned from the bullfights in Madrid, not Milan as previously planned. Antoine stutters uncontrollably asking for Monsieur’s order, and Monsieur declares that he will have nothing to eat. He has decided to starve himself to death at his own restaurant and, in a final relaxing of decorum, insists that his staff call him Victor.
Panic naturally runs wild at Grand Boeuf with this turn of events. Chef Gaston is summoned from the kitchen to describe the prolonged horrors of dying by starvation, a suicide that cannot be consummated in a mere couple of days or weeks. Yet we are well aware – as is Hollinger – that a detailed description of an excruciating death may not be the ideal method of stimulating the listener’s appetite. The group arrives at an amicable compromise that is no less absurd. Grand Boeuf staff will enjoy the honor of preparing and presenting Victor’s valedictory seven-course meal, but it will be delivered and lusciously described on an empty plate. The actual feast will remain in the kitchen, unless Victor relents and decides to eat. In the meanwhile, Victor will narrate his life’s story between courses to Antoine, who is conveniently gifted at transcription.
All in all, this makes for a satisfying win-win-win-win. Victor gets to expound on his life while committing a suicide this is even more renunciatory than the one he conceived. Staffers at Grand Boeuf get to go out with a suitable flourish. We get it all: Victor’s story, the elegant ceremony with its slapstick breaches, and the mouthwatering culinary descriptions. Warehouse is a winner too, serving up all this bounty without needing to fork out the cash for the extravagant food.
If the props by Jackie Hohenstein and Nicole Miller steer us somewhat from café to cafeteria, Esposito’s tasteful set design is closer to an off-Broadway standard. The cast is well-suited to Esposito’s more robust view of the script, including the director himself as the outré chef. Philip Robertson sets the tone early on as the punctilious Claude, nothing whatsoever inward about his ultra-sensitive nerve endings. Yet he does not sacrifice propriety during all his visible episodes of seething. I can summon plenty of sympathy for Dominic Weaver as Antoine. Back in 1994, when Hollinger wrote his oddball comedy, stutterers were more of a comedy staple onstage and on TV than they are in our own politically-correct times, but I think Weaver attempts the right degree of affliction, though his Antoine is occasionally more labored than believable.
Aside from his tragical brooding, there are no larger-than-life dimensions to Brian Willard’s portrayal of Victor, so its merits are very different from those of Hugh Loomis when he performed the role in 2005. Here we savor the disparity between Victor and Hemingway. He’s still an ardent admirer of the great Papa but a shadow of the Nobel Prize personality rather than a replica, so the fact that his journalistic ambitions brought him no higher than The Daily News struck me as funnier this time around and less disappointing.
There is also tragedy in the kitchen, because Mimi feels her husband vastly underappreciates her and Gaston is too honorable and shy to declare his love for her. I’m not always sure that Pam Coffman quite gets what it meant for a Parisian to admire Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in July 1961, but she contributes deftly enough as Mimi to her husband’s frequent explosions. Esposito is delightful as the incorrigible Gaston, relentlessly indiscreet and irresistibly upbeat. Just by resisting Esposito’s zesty sketch of perishing by starvation, Victor nearly rises to heroic stature.
Late in Act 2, Stephanie DiPaolo walks in as “Mademoiselle,” the paramour that Victor last saw in Madrid. As Louise, DiPaolo serves us our final dish, the full account of the bullfights and the breakup. She’s as beautiful as a rose and as tearful as a widow. If you know your Hemingway, you’ll understand in the denouement that this love affair is the one part of Papa’s sensibility that Victor successfully manifests.