This EMPTY PLATE is an Acquired Taste

by Paul Recupero

Old Academy Players’ latest offering to cleanse the palate is local playwright Michael Hollinger’s AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFE DU GRAND BOEUF.  Several years ago at Villanova, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Hollinger as my senior thesis advisor.  His talents in writing witty characters, snappy dialogue and hilariously absurd plots are well known, not just in the Philadelphia area, but across the country.  This is especially true with respect to his more familiar farces, RED HERRING and INCORRUPTIBLE.

From left: Elliot Rotman, Arnie Feldman, Shari Lewis, Paul Muscarella, Brian Weiser in a scene from Old Academy Players' AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFE DU GRAND BOEUF playing through January 30.

EMPTY PLATE was his first produced play (at the Arden in 1994) and one with which I was previously unacquainted.  It starts off frantically, following the hurried efforts of the staff of a prestigious French cafe as they prepare their dining room for the arrival of their most distinguished and finicky patron, the impeccably cultured, Hemingway loving Victor.  Victor, who has just returned from an excursion to Madrid (not Milan), though, is in an atypical, downbeat demeanor.  Instead of his normal routine of dining with his lady friend on a wild flair of several courses of exquisite dishes, Victor arrives alone, takes his usual table, and requests…nothing at all.  When the dining staff inquires, Victor announces to their horror that he has decided to commit suicide—by starvation.

At this point I began to feel the familiar absurdist twinges of a Hollinger comedy.  However, while the dining staff does attempt to persuade Victor out of his resolution by means of a challenge to see if their most prestigious patron can resist (a detailed description of) their finest entrées, the play’s comedy soon morphs into a lengthy narrative of Victor’s life.  EMPTY PLATE is no rapid paced RED HERRING or INCORRUPTIBLE.  It is something deeper entirely and, as a consequence, more deliberate.  While director William H. Peterson captured the measured tenor of the script, I felt Old Academy’s production proceeded too far in this direction.

Although clearly an accomplished actor, Arnie Feldman’s Victor fell into the unfortunate habit of delivering his lines and monologues in the same languid manner throughout, with routine, periodic inflections that occasionally bordered on intoning.  At times the momentum of the show slowed to a crawl.  And when the play’s run-time stretched to nearly two hours (without an intermission) as a result, this became a problem.  The lethargic pace was particularly notable during Victor’s meticulous recounting of a bullfight.  Nevertheless, Feldman obviously put much thought into creating his character, and his interpretation is an actor/director choice I did not agree with, not a case of lack of talent.

Many of the supporting cast had moments where they shined.  Special mention goes to Elliot Rotman as head chef Gaston, who demonstrated a natural sense of comic timing.  Shari Lewis as Mimi, the under-appreciated waitress, and Brian Weiser as Antione, the busboy with an unusual musical talent, provided additional color.  I also enjoyed Terri Bateman’s refreshingly earnest performance in a cameo role I wish had been larger.

Old Academy has made a worthy attempt at a very difficult dark comedy.  EMPTY PLATE could have benefited from additional rehearsals to highlight some of the nuances in Hollinger’s script, as well as to polish out the occasionally stilted blocking and the aforementioned pacing problems.  But I am sure that some viewers will disagree with my nitpicks, as the majority of the opening night audience was receptive overall.

by Michael Hollinger
Directed by William H. Peterson
January 14 – 30, 2011
3544 Indian Queen Ln
Philadelphia, PA 19129

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Paul Muscarella January 18, 2011 - 1:09 pm

I respect your opinion sir, and thank you for coming out to see our play. I want you to know that we were aware of the pacing issues, and they have been solved since you saw the show on Opening Night. The pacing, particularly in the climactic bullfight scene has been improved. The show now runs 1 hour 40 minutes. Audiences for the last two performances have greatly enjoyed it. I invite you back to see it again, and see if you think its any better. Id also like to hear your thoughts on my performance, since you didnt mention me at all.

Paul Muscarella, :”Claude”

Arnie Feldman January 18, 2011 - 8:55 pm

Paul Recupero criticism of the slow pace of Friday’s performance is right on target.
My wife and the director told me the same thing. So, be rest assured, that the following performances have really picked up the pace and we are moving right along.
The bull spends a lot less time suffering before the moment of truth.
The play is exquisite, and I feel a responsibility to give it what it deserves.
Arnie Feldman (Victor)


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