Theater Review - Dinner for one

Flavorful Boeuf overseasoned with slapstick

Theatre in the Square’s Alley Stage takes a second helping of playwright Michael Hollinger with An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf. The Alley Stage found a hit last fall with Hollinger’s Cold War comedy Red Herring, and Grand Boeuf starts in a similarly screwball mode.

But Grand Boeuf diverges dramatically from Hollinger’s Herring to become a kind of melancholy, existential comedy, and its own slapstick moments seem out of place. It’s like biting into a rich, nutritious dish when you expected a sugary, empty pastry.

The Cafe du Grand Boeuf may be the finest restaurant in Paris in the early 1960s, boasting a colorful, competent staff in Claude (Dan Triandiflou) the snobby maître d’, Mimi (Lisa Parks) the excitable waitress, Gaston (Bill Murphey) the emotional chef and Antoine (Chris Moses) the eager new waiter on his first night. But as Claude explains to Antoine, only two people have ever eaten at the Cafe: its millionaire American owner, Victor, and his lady friend “Mademoiselle.”

When Victor (Winslow Thomas) trudges in alone, quoting Ernest Hemingway, one suspects some bad news. Victor shocks the staff by announcing that he not only wants nothing for dinner, but that he wants to eat nothing ever again: He’s resolved to kill himself by starvation. “This doesn’t usually happen,” Claude tells Antoine.

The staff desperately tries to dissuade their employer from suicide — Gaston offers a hilariously graphic description of the symptoms of starvation — but Victor remains determined. So Claude proposes a challenge: They’ll prepare a sumptuous, seven-course meal, but keep it in the kitchen, bringing Victor empty plates. He’ll have to test his resolve against the delicious aromas and Claude’s description of the dishes, “a feast of adjectives and adverbs.”

It’s a contrived, contorted premise — a restaurant with one customer? a last meal with imaginary courses? — that proves surprisingly engaging. Triandiflou’s performance is crucial to making it work. He gestures with maestro flourishes and offers savory litanies of menu-speak when describing, say, Gaston’s chateaubriand. At times, the play seems to hang on Triandiflou’s perfectly thin mustache, which curls up during Claude’s fits of pique and puts an obsequious accent over his servile grin.

Between courses, Victor recounts his life story, from youthful obituary writer to expatriate millionaire. As Victor, Thomas even has a Hemingwayesque beard, and though he doesn’t give a very funny performance, you gradually realize that Victor shouldn’t be played for laughs. Beneath Victor’s self-indulgent gloom lies some real poignancy. In his big speech, he describes and partially re-enacts a spectacular bullfight in Madrid, an excitingly theatrical moment that succeeds against all expectations. The play tests the idea that life is worth living, weighing the characters’ personal tragedies against the sensual delights of excellent food and wine.

Such a rich, serious subject makes the wacky content feel merely frivolous. Some of the physical comedy pays off well, like the moments when Gaston pushes the kitchen doors to fan the cooking smells in Victor’s direction. (If any show ever needed to be in Odorama, it’s this one.)

Parks overdoes Mimi’s Jackie Kennedy fixation and emotional outbursts, while Moses crashes into doors, attempts to play the trombone and stumbles over a vaudeville-sized stammer. The cast and director Deadra Moore loyally follow Hollinger’s script, even though the zany comedy is at odds with the quirky but serious theme. You feel that Grand Boeuf would be twice as good if it had half as many pratfalls and one-liners.

Grand Boeuf takes less inspiration from classic screwball comedy than from Hemingway itself, paying tribute to the legendary writer while tweaking his image. Uneven yet highly appetizing, An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf offers a fascinating evening — with reservations.