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Food for Thought

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At the Café du Grand Boeuf in Paris, no menu is necessary. Why? “Because we have everything,” asserts Claude, the mercurial Maître d’.

The story unfolds in July 1961 around Victor Bullard, an expat American newspaper magnate. About a dozen years before, Victor created the finest cafe in the world that is devoted solely to fulfilling his appetite for the world's best cuisine. The staff is always available to prepare the most sumptuous of meals for just one customer, Victor.  An Empty Plate at Café du Grand Boeuf is presented on the Waxlax stage at Vero Beach's Riverside Theatre through February 5.

A great connoisseur of life, love, and food, Victor is obsessed with Ernest Hemingway, and his idol's suicide — three days before the play unfolds — has clearly blackened Victor's world. When Victor who shows up at the cafe, he's disheveled and depressed. He has just returned from a Hemingway-like sojourn to Madrid and the "Running of the Bulls" where his longtime girlfriend Louise (Katherine Puma) refused his offer of marriage. Victor's response: to slowly die of starvation at his own table.

But here's the thing, An Empty Plate isn’t really about food. It’s about loss in life, and in these zany characters there is plenty of it.  Jim VanValen as Victor delivers a powerhouse performance seated in a chair at his table most of the evening. Headwaiter Claude (Brian Myers Cooper) exhibits confident savoir-faire and is determined to whip into shape the stuttering, geeky waiter-in-training Antoine (Daniel Burns). They are joined by wistful waitress Mimi (Maria Couch) and highly charged chef Gaston (Andrew Sellon) who's madly in love with Mimi who is married to Claude.

The frantic staff--  whose very livelihoods depend on Victor's appetite-- try mightily to change his mind. Finally, Victor is persuaded to have his favorite dishes prepared, but the food is to be kept in the kitchen.  Instead, the staff  describe it, tickling Victor's taste buds, course by course served a series of empty plates.

The dishes call out to Victor's hunger, but what really grabs him are the real-life dramas that the restaurant's four employees guardedly reveal to him. In particular, husband and wife, Claude and Mimi bring some well-grounded realism to the madcap performances.

Playwright Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf had its premiere at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company in 1994 and has enjoyed numerous productions around the country, in New York City, and abroad. Currently, Hollinger is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University.  

The set makes the most of a few well-chosen set pieces and props, creating an elegant atmosphere on a small stage.  A frantic comedy wrapped around life's pain and longing, An Empty Plate is served up by a crackerjack cast under the splendid direction and scenic design of Riverside's Allen Cornell. There is plenty of food for thought and a helluva of an evening of entertainment.

Show runs through February 5. Tickets are $45. Call 772-231-6990 or online at http://www.riversidetheatre.com

http://www.terryconway.net