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.
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.
AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFE DU GRAND BOEUF
by Michael Hollinger
Directed by William H. Peterson
January 14 – 30, 2011
OLD ACADEMY PLAYERS
3544 Indian Queen Ln
Philadelphia, PA 19129