Victor, a wealthy American newspaperman – that's a contradiction in terms, of course; Victor inherited money from his newspaper-owning dad – is living the expatriate's dream in 1961. A devotee of Papa Hemingway, he gallivants around Europe with his mistress, Louise, and owns a cafe in Paris where he employs the country's finest chef to cook only for himself or for the two of them. That's right: The entire establishment and its staff exist to cater to his whims – which they do with the devotion of those old family retainers in novels about Victorian England. As the play opens, however, Victor is heartbroken. He has just returned from the bullfights in Madrid, where Louise refused his offer of marriage, and has come to the cafe intending to starve himself to death. Hence the title: An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf.
For the maître d', Claude, his wife, Mimi, and the chef, Gaston, Victor's decision is more than a source of grief: It is the ultimate outrage. For years, serving him has been their livelihood – but it is also who they are. For him to reject Claude's skilled ministrations and the food Gaston so meticulously prepares -- fricaseed platypus on a bed of crisp Argentine grasshopper; rabbit that's been force-fed foie gras; freshly-shot pheasant; a steer flown in from Texas – brings everything they stand for into question. Hoping to change Victor's mind, they persuade him to let them prepare a superb seven-course meal, bring out the appropriate – and empty – serving plates and glasses for each course, and describe the dishes minutely from appetizer to dessert. Victor assents. While the meal unfolds, he will create his own obituary – he began as an obituary writer at the Chicago Tribune – recounting the story of his life to Antoine, the cafe's eager new young waiter.
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Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once said that the sequence of meals through a lifetime is like a long conversation, a narrative that puts the world in order; Victor has apparently figured this out and is expediting the process.
Boulder Ensemble Theatre director Rebecca Remaly's casting is close to perfect. Victor could easily seem tedious and narcissistic, but John Arp has such warmth and intelligence that you can't help feeling for him. Michael Bouchard is sharp and charming as Antoine; Crystal Verdon Eisele makes poor, distracted Mimi sympathetic; Bob Buckley brings a lot of vitality to the part of Gaston; and Theresa Dwyer Reid makes a brief, telling appearance. But perhaps the most masterly performance is that of Josh Hartwell as prissy, penguin-suit-clad maître d' Claude. Hartwell has a non-histrionic way of slipping into a role, and you could easily miss the skill and depth he brings to it. Claude fusses about protocol, his eyes flickering here and there in search of any smudge, possible mishap, thread out of place, yet you can see the turmoil and calculation behind the finickiness. Claude's desire to keep things orderly – no matter what it takes – is so profound it's almost noble.
An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through May 7, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.boulderensembletheatre.org.
Playwright Michael Hollinger is a musician; he also wrote Opus, a play about a musical quartet that received an excellent production from Curious Theatre Company last year – and he has a way of making dialogue pulse: There are passages that jump or flow, interesting rhythms, overlapping sequences, point and counterpoint. The result is absorbing, entertaining, funny and bittersweet. Hollinger is also very clever, and if An Empty Plate isn't exactly profound (I really can't share Victor's reverence for Hemingway, and the many quotes just don't stir me as they should), it does conjure up some interesting ideas and associations. And there is perhaps a shimmer of profundity – in, for example, Victor's remarks about the garden of Eden, his re-enactment of the bullfight. As I watched, I kept thinking about Kafka's short story "The Hunger Artist," in which a man starves himself to death as a freak-show attraction. Toward the end, the circus overseer asks why he has chosen this prolonged torment, and he responds, "Because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."
That line has haunted me for years.