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A CurtainUp Review
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
When CurtainUp reviewed the production of Empty Plate at
Berkshire Theatre Festival (see below), it was one of the highlights of
the very full plate of theater during the 1998 summer season. We were thus
happy to see that it was finding its way to New York. We were especially
pleased to learn that Jonathan Freeman would be reprising his terrific
portrayal of Claude, the head waiter, and that John Rando would again be
at the helm. Even most of the earlier design team remained involved in
the project. In addition, newcomers to the production included not only
two actors we have very much admired in other plays, Annie Golden and Matt
Stinton, but also the well-known television actor George Wendt, who was
well received in Art both on Broadway and in the West End.
J. Freeman, G. Wendt and M. Stinton (Photo: James
Alas, although Rob Odorisio's set has transferred quite nicely into
the narrower, shallower confines at Primary Stages, the production itself
has lost something in the translation. At the core of the deterioration
is Mr. Wendt. Although he has his delectable moments, he never connects
to the deflated passion of Victor's character and we therefore are left
with a rather hollow impression. Freeman's Claude remains as exceptional
as ever, and Golden is delightful as his waitress-wife who wants and deserves
more from life than she gets. Michael McCormick has just the right mix
of astonishment and condescension as the chef, Gaston, and Stinton's performance
as the stammering, tuba-wielding apprentice, Antoine, is most endearing.
But you can't make chateaubriand out of a pot roast.
>--- Elyse Sommer and Les Gutman
AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFÉ
DU GRAND BOEUF
by Michael Hollinger
Directed by John Rando
Freeman, Annie Golden, Michael McCormick, Matt Stinton, George Wendt and
Nance WilliamsonSet Design: Rob Odorisio
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Projection Design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Sound Design: Jim van Bergen
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
with no intermission Reviewed by Elyse
Sommer and Les Gutman
based on a 3/3/2000 performance
Elyse Sommer's Review of
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
(A Comic Tragedy in Seven Courses) at the Berkshire Theatre Festival
Much of the seven-course dinner served at the Café du Grand Boeuf
is a cross between The Big Night and Fawlty Towers. Unlike
the Big Night dinner which almost doesn't come off and the English
hostelry's constant epicurean mishaps, the dinner at Café du Grand
Boeuf is cooked to perfection. However, since Victor (Don Lee Sparks),
the lone diner who maintains the restaurant to be at the exclusive service
of his epicurean whims is bent on starving himself to death, this dinner
is served on empty plates. Well, not really empty. With the entire
cafe staff hovering nearby, the headwaiter Claude (Jonathan Freeman) serves
each dish with great flourish and a description so whimsically baroque
that you can almost taste it. Roast rabbit consommé is followed
by pheasant with truffles, then chateaubriand. Finally, there's the chef's
-- and the playwright's -- pièce de résistance, a
lethally delectable crême brulée.
As we proceed through this "Last Supper" the canniness of Michael Hollinger's
script becomes ever more apparent. Without sacrificing the prevailing zaniness
of the situation, he flavors it all with enough sadness about dashed hopes
and inertia to make this a menu filled with food for thought as well as
With Rob Odorisio once again creating a fine mood and time setting environment
we can almost see the Kennedy era literati frequenting such Paris bistros.
The exact time is unimportant, (which may be why the clock over the kitchen
door never moves), but the July 1963 date is. It was the month when Ernest
Hemingway, the idol of so many American expatriates, committed suicide.
Chief among these admirers is Victor who, like Hemingway, is a former journalist
once ruled by the "five W's of journalism" -- who, what, where, when and
why. In fact, since inheriting a fortune and retiring from scribbling,
Victor's entire thinking and life style has been a homage to Hemingway.
His loss of appetite for food or life is the aftermath of a Hemingway-esque
trip to Madrid where his relationship with his mistress mysteriously ended.
Don Lee Sparks brings a terrific mix of ennui and drollness to the world
weary Victor. He, as well as Jonathan Freeman are so Gallic that I went
back to the program bio to see if they were indeed French. (They're not).
Since Nance Williamson is listed in the program as Miss Berger (the mistress)
I'm not spoiling anything when I tell you that she does indeed make an
appearance. It's a brief scene but worth waiting for if only for her head-to-toe
matador-red outfit but more importantly for its effect on Victor.
The bits and pieces of Victor's history are the "Table Talk" accompanying
each course. In lieu of fellow diners, there's the staff which besides
Director John Rando has caught the mostly funny, occasionally sad mood
precisely and has skillfully directed the entire cast to back him up with
impeccable timing. There are times, especially during the first
half hour and more briefly during the middle, when the "service" could
be a little crisper. The dessert is definitely the coup de grâce.
Mimi, Claude's wife and the cafe's waitress (Lynn Hawley). Like Victor
and Miss Berger, they have been together for seven years. Like Victor and
Miss Berger, their relationship is in trouble. Mimi resents Claude's domination.
She too has an idol -- Jackie Kennedy, who has an outfit for every day
of the year. (The guffaws greeting Mimi's "That's what you get when you
marry a President" represent similar unintended extra laughs the real life
drama in DC is likely to seed for some time to come ). Even when she dons
a Jackie-like pillbox hat and suit she remains trapped in her life, unable
to close the cafe door behind her. (Shades of one of the characters in
one of the season's other successful farcical comedies, Taking Steps--
Brian Reddy as Gaston the chef and Bradford Cover as Antoine the busboy
are the assistant clowns. While I'm not fond of humor derived from physical
handicaps, Cover handles his stammer well and the funny business with his
one song tuba playing ends quite triumphantly.
P. S. Keep your eye on the small window looking out on the cafe's entry
way! It's used to wonderful advantage by the director.
|AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFé DU GRAND BOEUF (A Comic Tragedy in
By Michael Hollinger
Directed by John Rando.
Starring: Don Lee Sparks, Jonathan Freeman, Brian Reddy, Lynn Hawley,
Bradford Cover, Nance Williamson
Sets: Rob Odorisio
Costumes: David Murin
Lights: Brain Nason
Sound: Jim Van Bergen
Berkshire Theatre Festival-- PO Box 797, Stockbridge, MA 01262
8/11/98-9/05/98; opening 8/19/98
reviewed 8/23/98 by Elyse Sommer