Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1998

This is the funniest tragedy I have ever seen. I laughed till I cried, and never harder than when the main character fell head first into his chateau briand, dead as a doornail. The BTF press kit calls “An Empty Plate at the Cafe de Grand Boeuf” a comedy, but author Michael Hollinger has wisely subtitled his new work “a comic tragedy in seven courses.”

The fact that the BTF has built the perfect set and hired the perfect cast, perfectly directed by John Rando, distracts you almost completely from the fact that Hollinger has not written the perfect script. There are loose ends that are never tied up; the focus shifts from the cast as an ensemble to an obsession with the life of the main character, Victor; and there are times when the switch from comedy to tragedy can come as an abrupt jolt. But who the heck cares when you’re having so much fun?!

Perfect or not, Hollinger’s script is brazenly original. This is not the same old, same old. Victor (Don Lee Sparks) is a millionaire journalist with an obsession for Ernest Hemingway. He has built and staffed the Cafe de Grand Boeuf in Paris for the sole purpose of feeding him and his long-time girlfriend Miss Louise Berger (Nance Williamson) on their occasional visits to that city as they trot the globe. The general public is not admitted, and the staff is paid to wait in total preparation for their arrival, day in and day out.

When we enter the cafe the staff is in high excitement with the arrival of Monsieur and Mademoiselle imminent. A new waiter, Antoine (Bradford Cover), is being briefed by Maitre de Claude (Jonathan Freeman) and chef Gaston (Brian Reddy) while the waitress Mimi (Lynn Hawley) sulks because Claude’s anniversary gift to her was insufficient. We learn a great deal about these four hilariously funny characters as the play progresses, but to no avail since none of their trials and tribulations is brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

But like I said, who cares?? Cover, Freeman, Reddy and Hawley work together like a well-oiled slapstick machine. Their timing and teamwork are impeccable, and some of those pratfalls are not easy on such a steeply raked stage (and Hawley has to do them in high heels!)

But when Victor arrives he is alone. And he is suicidal, having decided to starve himself to death in his own cafe. The staff, who exist only to serve this man meals, are understandably perplexed, and they finally come to an agreement whereby they will be allowed to serve Victor a seven course meal on empty plates. While they do this Antoine must take down Victor’s life story as he dictates.

I will not give away the twists and turns of the plot. Some are perfect, some are frustrating dead-ends. But you will not miss not having an intermission in this two-hour long play. And you will come out humming “Lady of Spain”.

Sparks does a fine job as Victor. He reminded me of the late, great Fred Gwynne (yes, the guy who played Herman Munster) both physically and professionally. Think of Gwynne’s last role as the Judge in the film “My Cousin Vinny”.

The scenic and lighting design for this show, by Rob Odorisio and Brian Nason respectively, are fabulous. You really feel as if the fourth wall has been ripped away from a Parisian Cafe. The sharply raked stage tips the whole set toward the audience and director Rando keeps his actors moving briskly through the maze of tables and chairs in the cafe. He even stages a bull fight without knocking over a chair.

“An Empty Plate at the Cafe de Grand Boeuf” runs through September 5 on the main stage of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, on Route 102 in Stockbridge. Call 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1998

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