by Hugh Hunter
“An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf” (1994) by area playwright Michael Hollinger, a former Mt. Airy resident who now lives in Wyncote, is now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls. It is 1961, and Victor is an aging journalist who uses his wealth to keep up a four-star restaurant in Paris where he is the only customer.
The play’s dramatic premise is absurdly simple: Victor shows up to announce he is committing suicide by starvation. To kick off his plan, he orders the cafe staff to prepare a seven-course dinner for him, then serve it in the form of empty plates.
Head waiter Claude (Paul Muscarella) obliges, yet tries to tease Victor back to life. He has Victor savor the aromas from the serving trays and gives mouth-watering descriptions of all the dishes — rabbit consomme, pheasant with truffles, creme brulee. I wanted to eat it myself, but Victor will have none of
Arnie Feldman is convincing as Victor. This is a mixed blessing as you then get to spend 90 uninterrupted minutes in the company of a man so world-weary he seems to have to drag himself through the night.
Course by course, Victor tells you about his life. Disappointed in love, he has become a kind of professional expatriate who idolizes Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, in a loopy way Victor quotes Hemingway to sum up his every experience, and the thought occurs that in some sense he may be dead already.
In between plates, the cafe staff slip in their own sad stories: Claude is a closet homosexual. His wife, Mimi (Shari Lewis), feels lovelorn. Chef Gaston (Elliott Rotman) is hopelessly in love with Mimi. Antoine (Brian Weiser) is a stuttering, kazoo-playing artist manque, and Victor’s girlfriend, Miss Berger (Terri Bateman), pops in with her own tragic tale. The result is a ragout of lost souls.
The Old Academy production is zesty. I loved the understated absurdity of the cafe decor (lots of empty picture frames on the wall). Director William H. Peterson makes good use of lights to coax some dramatic accents into the business,
and his cast gets you to look sympathetically upon the characters.
But the theme of “An Empty Plate” remains a puzzle to me. I could not get any sense of “what it meant” because it felt so confused at the basic level of genre and tone. It comes across as a conflicting potpourri of ingredients — TV sitcom, cerebral satire, horseplay and farce, absurdist theater — that
continually elbow each other off the stage.
I could feel the energy of the Old Academy production. But it is a challenge to stage something that lacks an essential direction, and “An Empty Plate” may leave you feeling a little hungry.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf” will run through Jan 30. Reservations at 215-843-1109.