Yummy ingredients, lukewarm preparation
It’s easy to see why Terrence Nolen was impressed when he read the manuscript of Michael Hollinger’s early play, An Empty Plate at the Café Le Grand Boeuf, in 1993. Here was a gutsy script that meshed light comedy of manners, farce and drama while celebrating Ernest Hemingway, bullfighting and gourmet cooking.
Nolen, the artistic co-director of the Arden Theater, produced and directed the play’s premiere the following year.
Bubbling inside this pot-au-feu was a whodunit – more complicated than that, a who-dun-what. A lone diner returns from a trip to Spain without his long-time female companion. Something happened at a bullfight in Madrid. Did she die? Did our protagonist kill her? Why does he now want to commit suicide?
I’m omitting plot details, such as who is involved romantically with whom, and how dinner is prepared. I prefer to simmer ingredients down to their essence.
Even the most accomplished playwrights of our time would have difficulty meshing all the elements within one 90-minute act. Hollinger, who was then 31, managed it with remarkable skill.
The forgotten Ernest Hemingway
This is not to say that An Empty Plate is perfect. Some audience members scratch their heads as slapstick pratfalls collide with graphic descriptions of death, while Hemingway quotes (rarely taught in today’s classrooms) fall on uncomprehending ears. I, on the other hand, love the excitement of juggling these disparate elements.
Hollinger has written many excellent plays since then, most notably Red Herring in 2000 and Opus in 2006. But An Empty Plate is by no means inconsequential juvenilia. This feast of a script deserves a more cohesive production than it receives here. Such a colorful smorgasbord requires a quiet, unifying presentation. I believe in the theatrical axiom: When an actor’s lines sound crazy, present them in a rational manner.
Overacting and under-acting
Ian Merrill Peakes is superb as the headwaiter Claude; but Douglas Rees, as the suicidal diner, fails to convince. He lacks the panache that we expect from a man as rich, literate and worldly as this character. The diner could be played as arrogant, or as world-weary, or as a man in panic, but Rees – who was impressive as the cellist in Hollinger’s Opus – fails to project any of those characteristics.
At least he remains understated, which is more than one can say of some of the café employees. Mary McCool as the waitress Mimi, and the talented Richard Ruiz as the chef Gaston, have been directed to act outrageously rather than integrate themselves into the ensemble of the café’s long-time staff. Neither their accents nor their body language harmonize with those of their co-workers. James William Ijames is an exception, playing the part of a newly employed waiter, Antoine, with reticence.
To read Robert Zaller’s review, click here.