The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company — aka BETC, which is pronounced “Betsy” for those of you still puzzling out the headline above — concludes its fifth season with the regional premiere of Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf. A scrumptious tale filled end to end with laughter at things and people that should rightly induce tears, or at least a sense of melancholy, An Empty Plate makes good on BETC’s promise to produce wonderful stories wonderfully told.
Were it not for a friend of mine who is both a professional cook (don’t call him a “chef ”) and a self-avowed foodie of the highest order, I might not have seen An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf. For him, and for all other acolytes of Bourdain, Batali, Oliver and the rest, the descriptions of the various courses contemplated and served during the course of this play might be enough to qualify An Empty Plate as a success. The talk of truffles, tarragon and thyme alone will give any gourmand a serious case of tent pants or swamp panties.
For those of us who possess palates less worldly and demanding — those who draw as much pleasure from a bowl of Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries or a fluffernutter sandwich as from a lobster Thermidor or a curried quinoa — An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf also proffers a memorably lunatic passel of characters each more entertaining than the last. These chefs, waiters, matres d’s, millionaires, wives and lovers are all finely drawn and expertly acted, and they are a true pleasure to behold.
The premise of An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf is somewhat fantastical yet immediately accepted as commonplace by actors and audience alike. In Paris in 1961, a millionaire newspaper magnate, Victor ( John Arp), owns the Café du Grand Boeuf. This café, considered one of the best restaurants in the world, caters to Victor and his privileged guests alone. It is not open to the public, and though Victor might be absent for weeks or months at a time while he globe trots around the world, its staff remains always at the ready for the next time he walks through the door.
The aforementioned maitre d’, Claude ( Josh Hartwell), lives for Victor’s visits to the café, and he is the most affected when Victor makes an unexpected announcement at the beginning of the play. Claude’s wife, Mimi (Crystal Verdon Eisele), acts as his right hand at work even while their marriage faces soufflé-like collapse. The chef, Gaston (Bob Buckley), stands ready to whip up any dish Victor could possibly imagine, and the newly hired replacement waiter, Antoine (Michael Bouchard), works admirably to manage his stammer while trying to learn the ropes during Victor’s most unusual visit to the café.
Playwright Michael Hollinger is apparently an aesthete. How else would you describe a writer who so effortlessly coaxes humor from the rarified worlds of classical music as he did in Opus or gourmet dining as he does in An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf? With his great material, BETC once again proves itself to be one of Boulder’s most talented and exciting theater companies.
Director Rebecca Remaly uses the simple, static set of the café to frame the action in a cozy yet unrestrained fashion. All of the actors give enjoyable performances, with John Arp and Bob Buckley standing out. Arp’s Victor, whether bemoaning lost love or quoting Hemingway, commands his staff and the entire production, and Arp displays a tremendous emotional range along with excellent comic timing. Working with a much more one-dimensional role, Buckley gets the loudest and longest laughs with his slightly crazed but entirely well-meaning Gaston.
My only quibble with An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf is that the action and reactions between the Big Reveal and the Big Twist (which is one of the more unexpected and hilarious Big Twists I’ve seen in a while) seem somewhat forced. In a play that flows so smoothly before and after, I was jarred by this. I don’t know if it’s due to the way Hollinger wrote the play or the way in which Remaly directs it, but perhaps the addition of a few more moments — with or without dialogue — between the reveal and the twist might facilitate the transition and give both more impact.
That one, small hiccup aside, I, and my food-ophile friend, loved An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf. If you see one gastronomically focused tragicomedy over the course of the next few weeks, this should be it.
On the Bill
An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf plays through May 7 at the Dairy Center, 2590 Walnut St. For tickets or information, call 303-444-7328 or visit www.boulderensemble theatre.org.