The Laguna Playhouse serves up a tangy comedic soufflé in the West Coast Premiere of An Empty Plate In The Café Du Grand Boeuf—with a surprise “be careful what you wish for” dénouement worthy of O Henry.

Empty Plate scribe Michael Hollinger is nothing if not original, as witnessed by the recently reviewed Incorruptible, his dark screwball comedy set in (of all places) a Dark Ages monastery. Here, Hollinger’s setting is Paris in June of 1961, just weeks after President and Jackie Kennedy’s visit to the world’s most romantic city.  More specifically, Empty Plate takes us to the titular restaurant parisien, an elegant établissement which remains open 24/7 with the sole aim of feeding its owner (and only customer) the finest delicacies Paris has to offer.

Explains headwaiter Claude (Jeff Marlow) to newbie busboy Antoine (Graham Miller), “Our job is to give Monsieur everything he wants,” Monsieur being 50ish American expat Victor (Adrian Sparks). Besides Claude and Antoine, the Café Du Grand Boeuf’s staff includes chef extraordinaire Gaston (Marc Cardiff) and waitress (and Claude’s wife) Mimi (Stasha Surdyke).

Today has not been the best of days for Mimi.  Not only was she disappointed by Claude’s boring anniversary gift (if only she had married a President like Jackie instead of a waiter), her carefully rehearsed Italian greeting to Victor falls flat. (It seems that their favorite [and only] customer has just returned from Madrid, not Milan as Mimi had been informed, and the only Spanish she knows is “Bonas Nachos.”)

Busboy Antoine greets Monsieur with a tuba rendition of “Lady Of Spain.” “I can play it again if you like,” offers the eager lad (it is, after all, the only number in his repertoire), but Victor graciously declines the offer. Asked what he’ll be having for dinner ce soir, Victor’s response is a polite “Nothing,” and when Claude appears uncomprehending, the American elucidates:  “I’m not going to eat until I die.”  Victor has, you see, lost his appetite. Not his hunger, he explains, merely his appetite. “Appetite is hunger with a hope,” says Victor, who has returned from Spain without his companion Louise on his arm and accordingly without hope in his heart.

Though Mimi thinks it’s romantic, killing oneself for love (she’s asked Claude to do so twice, but he refuses) the rest of the restaurant staff is aghast.  “For twelve years, our sole purpose has been to serve you,” Claude reminds Victor, and Gaston gives him a detailed description of a long, slow death by starvation, but to no avail. If the Café Du Grand Boeuf insists on putting platefuls of food in front of him, Victor will simply go down the street to Chez Bruno, and everyone knows that (horrors!) the chef there is Algerian!

An agreement is reached. Victor will tell the staff his life story, the staff will call him by his first name, and Gaston will prepare (but not serve) a scrumptious seven-course meal. “Will you at least permit us to describe it to you?” requests Claude, and Victor assents.  The first course is “Wild Game Consommé With Poached Rabbit Guenelles” described with such loving, even erotic detail, that Victor wonders “Are you trying to seduce me?”  (Shades of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.)

As Victor’s tale unfolds (with Antoine taking careful notes), we learn that the American is not the only one dissatisfied with the status quo of his love life.  Chef Gaston brings Victor a pistol hidden in a serving dish because he knows about despair, being hopelessly in love with Mimi. Mimi’s husband Claude likewise knows how despair feels, nursing an unrequited crush on Antoine. (“Before Mimi, I was experimental,” he explains.  “I tried both kinds of people.”)

Under Andrew Barnicle’s expert direction (assisted by the Chance’s Oanh Nguyen), performances are all-around marvelous, combining the delicacy of Hollinger’s whimsical tale with elements of both farce and slapstick, leading to the play’s high point, a dramatic recreation of the bullfight where his relationship with Louise ended.

Sparks couldn’t be better as Victor, world-weary yet still possessing traces of joie de vivre.  Marlow gives yet another superbly shaded performance as finicky headwaiter Claude, and Cardiff is a joy to watch as the eager chef Gaston. Surdyke is a warm and absolutely lovely Mimi, and Miller’s stammering Antoine couldn’t be more appealing.  (He plays “Lady Of Spain” with a just-right mix of gusto and mediocrity.) Amy Kay Raymond makes an impressive 11th hour appearance as Miss Berger, who has some life-altering news to impart.

Bruce Goodrich has designed an absolutely gorgeous set, the Café Du Grand Boeuf elegantly appointed in shades of peacock blue and cardinal scarlet, with an authentic-looking parquet floor.  Paulie Jenkins’ lighting is equally stunning, especially during the dramatic bathed-in-red bullfight sequence. Dwight Richard Odle’s excellent early 60s costumes range from suitably black-and-white restaurant staff uniforms to Mimi’s perfectly Jackie pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat. David Edwards’ sound design sets the tale squarely in Paris with a selection of French chansons, and flavors the bullfight scene with the sounds of the corrida.  The bullfight sequence itself has been staged with expert guidance by bullfighting consultant David Moss.

Ultimately, An Empty Plate In The Café Du Grand Boeuf is about relishing every one of life’s meals as if it were your last. It is a charming and savory treat.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 3, 2009
Photos: Ed Krieger, The Laguna Playhouse

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