For maximum audience response, “An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf” is best digested on an empty stomach. Although only one small serving of creme brulee makes an appearance late in Michael Hollinger’s comedy, first performed at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company in 1994, all other courses of a four-star French meal are verbally described by a maitre d’ whose extraordinary powers of recall become a form of torture.
But while the gastronomically sadistic Claude teases us with vivid descriptions of artery-choking French cuisine — his divertissement on chateaubriand would turn any vegan into a carnivore — “Cafe du Grand Boeuf” is as devoid of a compelling main course as are all the empty porcelain plates that keep whizzing in and out of the restaurant’s steamy kitchen.
It is July 1961 in Paris. For Victor (George Wendt), mysterious owner and sole customer of the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, Ernest Hemingway’s recent suicide is proving inspirational. After mumps that left him sterile and a girlfriend (Nance Williamson) who rejected his proposal of marriage at a bullfight in Madrid, Victor is ready to starve himself to death in his favorite restaurant, much to the consternation of its tiny staff. “We have a purpose: to serve you,” they tell him, tempting Victor with offers of his favorite dishes. Victor will neither consume nor look at any of it, but does listen while Claude (Jonathan Freeman), “in a feast of adjectives and adverbs,” describes the food Gaston (Michael McCormick) has lovingly prepared for him back in the kitchen.
Between courses, Gaston tells Victor that he’s secretly in love with Claude’s wife, the waitress, Mimi (Annie Golden). Claude lets Victor know that he harbors bisexual fantasies. Antoine (Matt Stinton), the waiter, plays “The Lady from Spain” on his tuba every chance he gets. And Gaston, humiliated that his career as a journalist never equaled that of Hemingway’s, keeps spouting turgid passages from Papa’s novels.
Wendt succeeds all too well at conveying the requisite ennui. Freeman’s flights of culinary delight offer a welcome leitmotif, but it is mere garnish around a cold canned ham who, unlike his macho hero Hemingway, chooses not to go quickly. Everyone also acts much giddier and nuttier than Hollinger’s dialogue ever suggests they should. John Rando’s direction appears to have taken its cue from the concept that bad tuba-playing will bring down the house. For those not enchanted, Antoine the horn-blower also stutters. Still, one should not criticize the dancers for the music.
Potential restaurateurs may want to check out Rob Odorisio’s jewel box of a set. Given the right location and a better clientele, this cafe could run forever.