The plate is not the only empty thing in the Invisible Theatre's production of Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf. Although the production itself is quite well-done, Hollinger attempts to serve a feast but uses questionable recipes for dishes that don't complement each other. We get a tasty snack, but little real nourishment.
Victor (Roberto Guajardo) is a millionaire American expatriate and ex-journalist who has settled in Paris. The reasons behind this choice are never clearly explained, but there is ample evidence that Victor's life reverberates with echoes of Ernest Hemingway. Just in case this is not absolutely clear, Victor quotes Hemingway endlessly. (In fact, you might want to brush up on your Hemingway before you buy your ticket.) Victor owns a fancy restaurant populated with a fine chef and an eager-to-please staff, an establishment in which he, by design, is the only guest. Ever.
The chatter of his caretakers in the opening scene reveals they are anticipating monsieur's return from a lengthy visit to Madrid. They are unsure if monsieur's lady will be with him, but maître d' Claude (Sean Dupont) is making sure all will be ready to please their employer.
When Victor arrives, alone, he announces that he wants no food; in fact, has not eaten in a day and a half and has decided to starve himself to death. Part of his despair, we learn, is in response to Hemingway's recent suicide. Victor has no appetite, he declares, "which is hunger with hope."
The staff tries to accommodate monsieur while also attempting to dissuade him from his desire to do himself in. A compromise, of sorts, is reached: The staff decides monsieur will be unable to resist the tantalizing work of chef Gaston (David Alexander Johnston), who will prepare an outrageously luscious meal which monsieur will not eat. Yes, the chef will actually cook, and the maître d' will describe in mouth-watering detail what Victor is not being served, as an empty plate is set before him for each of seven courses.
The irony of a hungry man coming to a restaurant as he attempts to starve himself to death is rather delicious. And Hollinger seems to revel in the idea of life's many ironies, creating a doozy of one for the story's conclusion. He also injects hints of other potentially substantive themes (as well as an array of allusions and often-contradictory metaphors). How we feed ourselves. Starvation is the abundance of what you can't have. Life is like a bullfight. But as soon as he suggests something which might be legitimate food for thought, he undercuts himself by turning too quickly to comic intervention. The result is that we have a script that is at times intellectually intriguing and often funny, but is emotionally flaccid.
Samantha K. Wyer directs a capable cast with an intelligent hand, and works hard to find a legitimate place for everything Hollinger serves up, including the humor. Carrie Hill, Brad Kula, Dupont and Johnston, as restaurant employees, all bring much to the table, but their roles are thanklessly underdeveloped. The playwright's meager efforts to flesh them out result in silly and pointless information that does nothing to inspire interest or further the action.
No, this is Victor's story, and the character is a difficult one, but Guajardo gives it a good go. He wears Victor's disillusion and despair gracelessly but not offensively. Guajardo manages to make Victor likable even as he speaks of himself in the third person while relating the story of his life, insisting that stuttering waiter/tuba player Antoine (Kula) write it all down. Guajardo gamely responds to the playwright's excesses, but Hollinger makes it hard for us to really feel for Victor. Even in a wonderful scene in which Victor recalls the events at a bullfight in Madrid, and we see him unveil the depth of his hurt, Hollinger aborts the moment with a joke. We are led to a moment of emotional connection—only to have it snatched away.
The production's designers have done an outstanding job, creating on IT's tiny stage a handsome dining room complete with swinging doors to the restaurant's kitchen, which are, of course, put to great comic use. James Blair's lighting design creates a stunning and effective atmosphere when Victor relives his moment in Madrid. Maryann Trombino's costumes and Gail Fitzhugh's sound design round out a carefully considered environment.
Hollinger has created a play which can be as annoying as it is intriguing. He overreaches and then pulls his punches so frequently that it's hard to distinguish what he wants his piece to be. We are not served a totally empty plate, and IT's production makes for a fairly entertaining 90 minutes. But we miss the supremely scrumptious—and emotionally nutritious—meal we feel we have been promised.