I love to cook and among my favorite dishes is a Moroccan Tagine, a kind of stew that includes something for every one of my taste buds – savory (umami), sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The Riverside Theatre play, An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf is such a dish, and like any well-prepared meal, it leaves you comfortably satisfied.
Yes, it is a play about food – or more specifically, it’s absence. Let me explain. It takes place at the Paris restaurant, Café du Grand Boeuf (Restaurant of the Big Ox) in 1961. The staff provides comic relief as they prepare for the restaurant’s owner and only customer to arrive. The headwaiter, Claude (Brian Myers Cooper), is a candidate for Ritalin if there ever was one as he flits around the stage in near panic mode trying to shake his staff into a modicum of professionalism. His reclamation project is Antoine (Daniel Burns), a recently hired, stuttering dishwasher, who Claude wants to transform into a waiter before the owner arrives. Mimi (Maria Couch), is the restaurant’s hostess and Claude’s unhappy wife, who dreams of living the life of Jackie Kennedy as she complains about Claude’s anniversary present, a tube of lipstick.
The chef, Gaston (Jim VanValen), produces four star, seven-course meals on command without the benefit of a menu. (The restaurant must have a gym size walk-in cooler!) Of course, he only needs to cook when the owner is around, which can be any hour of day or night, always with his Mademoiselle, Louise.
After this comic setup. The owner, Victor, walks in, clothes rumpled, a look of pure misery – and without his Mademoiselle. The staff tries to cheer him up, Mimi greeting him in recently acquired Italian only to learn he was in Madrid, not Italy. They try to avoid asking about Mademoiselle.
Victor would like some music from his favorite musician, Pierre, who, it turns out, passed away since his last visit. But Claude announces a replacement, his stuttering waiter trainee who plays a euphonium (runt of the tuba family). But after a few discordant attempts at the only song he knows, “Lady of Spain,” he is clearly no Pierre. Claude tries to seduce Victor with detailed descriptions of gastronomic delights that induce a Pavlovian reaction from the audience, but not Victor. Instead, he announces his deciesion to starve himself to death over something that happened in Madrid while attending a bullfight.
As Victor begins to tell his sad story, Gaston prepares a seven course meal, but instead of serving it, Claude brings out empty dishes with imaginary food, each course described in detail. Victor pretends to eat from the empty dishes, knowing the actual meal is waiting in the kitchen if he decides not to go through with his plan to starve himself.
As Victor’s story unfolds, starting with his childhood as the son of a newspaper magnate who inherits his father’s millions, each successive course of empty plates is brought to him. Between courses, Mimi complains about Claude’s disinterest in her, Claude admits his sexual fantasies revolving around Antoine, and Gaston explains that he is secretly in love with Mimi, among other revelations.
Gaston brings out a covered dish that hides a revolver and pleads with Victor to choose that path to suicide rather than the agony of slowly starving. But Victor prefers a tortuous end.
From there, you will have to see this play for yourself. There are twists and turns that tweak every corner of your emotional palate. In the end, you will have to agree that the one hour and fifty minute production is not what you might have expected, but much more than you could have imagined.
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf continues until February 5 on the Waxlax Stage at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 772-231-6990 or online at www.riversidetheatre.com.