Off The Menu

Zagat was impressed with the nonexistent food ("inventive") but pooh-poohed the tuba player ("unromantic"): The cast of 'An Empty Plate' delivers the specials
Lisa Billingham

It is a peculiarity of our natures that we often lack an appetite for the low-hanging fruit close to our reach and easy to pick. Nothing sparks hunger like forbidden fruit or exotica beyond the range of our ordinary days. And as for the extraordinary days--in particular the ones that change everything and not for the better--they can leave us ready to renounce our appetites for good.

That is essentially what this tight, witty, and well-crafted semi-comedy is about. Girl Friday Productions' first full-stage presentation stars Bob Malos as Victor, a wealthy expat in Paris who has put his inherited fortune toward opening an all-hours, fully staffed gourmet restaurant that serves only himself and his lover. Things are going grand until, at the beginning of Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf, Victor arrives alone and announces that he's going to starve himself to death.

Steve Kath's restaurant set nicely solves some of Cedar-Riverside's space problems, which have made other shows there look like they were taking place in a black void rather than a theater. Elin Anderson's costumes also lend the production a sense of eye-pleasing style that goes a long way toward grounding some of the more absurdist aspects of the action--such as Victor's subsequently agreeing to eat an invisible meal, meticulously described by Edwin Strout as headwaiter Claude.

Malos anchors the show with his powerful bearing, his low and melodious voice, and flashes of pained humor that poke through Victor's despair. It's one of several spot-on performances from director Natalie Diem's cast. Strout is pissy, uptight, and officious and, while perhaps a bit overreliant on vocal tics, he supplies a legitimately conflicted character at the core of a play about service and satiation.

Victor compares the feelings in his heart to the sound of "Auld Lang Syne" playing two blocks away on New Year's Eve, and he booms around quoting Hemingway and discoursing on his tragic past. The only people who apparently want to hang around with him are on his payroll. The setup, with its inherent intellectual distance from conventional drama, could have made for a cold and brittle evening. Yet the players locate a convincing warmth in the script. When Mimi (Alayne Hopkins in an expressive and often touching performance) tells Victor she'd listen to him even if he wasn't paying her, Victor tells her she's very kind. Then he adds that he'd go ahead and pay her anyway.

The play has a couple of crosscurrent love stories that never get off the ground or amount to anything, which makes a nice kind of sense. Things are all about Victor, his fervent wish to embrace the grave, and the very tempered note of fleeting optimism that follows. It turns out we're watching a show that is slyly allegorical without making a big deal about it. The situation is absurd enough to be lightly enjoyable (it's a show in which a character announces that she's terminally ill, then exits the stage with a minimum of fuss), and just unhinged enough from reality to deflect serious consideration of the shortcomings in its narrative.

By the time things are over, we're reminded how little our choices or desires often matter in the big tidal motion of our lives. Maybe you like the cuisine of your reality to be tame and safe. Perhaps, like Victor, you would rather have it "brazenly sautéed." The possibilities are endless, but we really shouldn't pretend to be the sole author of our stories. There's always that unexpected twist right around the corner. Puzzle over the menu all you like, but in the end you're stuck eating whatever the hell comes out of the kitchen. And then, before you know it, you're hungry again.

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