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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
Arden Theatre Company

Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf is a play that's sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes charming, sometimes deep. But the various ingredients don't make this restaurant-set tale into a satisfying dramatic banquet. It's more like a light snack.

Back in 1994, Empty Plate was the first of six Hollinger plays to make their world premiere at the Arden; the latest was the terrific Opus, which went on to a successful Off-Broadway run this past summer. Unfortunately, Empty Plate (which had its own Off-Broadway run in 2000) is not nearly as strong as Opus; in this revival it comes off as cute but a little too trivial for its own good.

Empty Plate tells the story of Victor, an expatriate American millionaire who lives in Paris where he owns a restaurant reserved for his private use. His staff caters to his every whim and looks forward to his dinners there with his paramour, the woman the staff refers to simply as "Mademoiselle." But this night Mademoiselle hasn't shown up, and Victor isn't eating ... ever again. He announces he has resolved to starve himself to death. But why? Where is Mademoiselle? What can the staff do to prevent the death of their benefactor? And what does Ernest Hemingway - Victor's favorite writer, whom he quotes whenever possible - have to do with all of this?

There are life lessons to be learned here, and Hollinger makes sure that he hammers them all home. But it takes a long time to find out just why Victor is so despondent, and in the end the reason doesn't seem convincing enough. There are many pleasures on the way to that revelation, though, thanks largely to Hollinger's rich, evocative use of language. Victor's gripping account of a Madrid bullfight (there's that Hemingway obsession again) is a particular highlight. But there's no urgency to anyone's actions here; under Whit MacLaughlin's detached direction, it all seems "an academic exercise" (as Victor puts it at one point) and not a matter of life and death.

With his sad eyes and hangdog expression, Douglas Rees is superb, capturing all of the weariness and longing in Victor's soul. The four staffers of the café serve mainly as comic counterpoint to their boss' glumness, yet MacLaughlin's supporting cast rarely finds the right tone. The comedy scenes have lots of funny lines (and well-executed slapstick) but don't mesh smoothly with the dramatic scenes that surround them. It doesn't help that these supporting characters are underdeveloped clichés: There's a waitress and a maitre d' who are going through a rough patch in their marriage (but not rough enough that you're ever worried that they'll break up); and a chef whose only character trait is his crush on the married waitress. The worst offender is a nervous busboy (James William Ijames) with an unconvincing stutter who wants to be a musician yet can only play one song on the saxophone. (And speaking of clichés, the song is "Lady of Spain.")

After the story comes to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, Hollinger pads out the play to 90 minutes with an unnecessary coda. First there's a scene in which the much-discussed Mademoiselle finally makes an appearance, although, as played by Mikaela Kafka, she's far less exotic than Victor's descriptions made her seem. Then there's the real ending - which is funny, but frustratingly implausible.

All in all, Empty Plate is clever, but little more. The main story isn't compelling, and the comic scenes have laughs but little resonance. It all makes you wonder why they even bothered to revive this one, since Hollinger, and the Arden, are capable of much better work. This fare didn't deserve a second helping.

An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf runs through December 8, 2007 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.

An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf
By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Scenic Design... Donald Eastman
Costume Design... Rosemarie E. McKelvey
Lighting Design... Jerold R. Forsyth
Sound Design... Jorge Cousineau
Stage Mangers... Patricia G. Sabato and Elena Wolff

CAST:
James William Ijames... Antoine
Mikaela Kafka... Miss Berger
Mary McCool... Mimi
Ian Merrill Peakes... Claude
Douglas Rees... Victor
Richard Ruiz... Gaston


-- Tim Dunleavy



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