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A CurtainUp Review
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
J. Freeman, G. Wendt and M. Stinton (Photo: James Leynse)
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. 

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

by Michael Hollinger 
Directed by John Rando 
with Jonathan 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 laughter. 

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 Claude includes: 
  • 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-- see link).
  • 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.
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. 

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. 

Taking Steps 
AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFé DU GRAND BOEUF (A Comic Tragedy in Seven Courses)
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 
URL: http://www.berkshiretheatre.org. 
8/11/98-9/05/98; opening 8/19/98 
reviewed 8/23/98 by Elyse Sommer

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