Invisible meals and Hemingway help An Empty Plate sparkle.

Quitting Thyme 

Invisible meals and Hemingway help An Empty Plate sparkle.

A pissy Paris restaurant in 1961 is the setting for Michael Hollinger's comedy An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, staged by the TBA Players at Just Off Broadway. The staff is in a tizzy about the impending arrival of Victor (Walter Winch), a regular who never fails to entertain his servers with tales of lush globe-trotting. He reeks of money well spent.

Among his regular audience at the Café are Claude (Jeffrey Ford Hull), the high-strung and bisexual head waiter; his poised black wife, Mimi (Kristie LaTray Harris), who seems to be more of a presence than a true staffer; and Gaston (Nino Casisi), the portly chef whose puffy soufflé of a cap barely contains his swelled head. A new waiter, Antoine (Bryan Bosch), is being quick-schooled in Victor's culinary eccentricities when the expected guest walks in and lays a whopper at their busy feet.

It seems he won't be having the usual -- he won't be having anything at all. Because of a devastating turn of affairs, he has decided to stop eating completely. He will starve himself to death, making, as he eloquently explains, an empty stomach match his empty heart.

The staff members take his announcement as a personal affront and attempt to dissuade him from self-decimation. When that seems to be failing, they convince him to let them whip up a seven-course meal that will be cooked and stashed in the kitchen -- just in case he sees the pilot light -- but served to him in invisible portions, complete with elaborate descriptions that would make Julia Child swoon with envy. Shaved truffles, rabbit stuffed with paté, an elegant consommé -- it's all so lovingly evinced in the script that you can almost smell the tarragon. Victor just gets the verbal essence, of course, and he plays along for a while.

Against an impressive set by Colin Naughtin that holds the appeal of an exclusive but faintly dog-eared bistro, Victor gradually tells the story that has pushed him to such an extreme. It involves bullfighting, liberal doses of Ernest Hemingway (granted, according to the program, by the writer's heirs) and, eventually, Hemingway himself. And there's always a woman. By the time Miss Berger (Patricia Bektal), Victor's dangerous liaison, shows up, he and the staff have joined as accomplices with no turning back.

The play's attention to detail both in the kitchen and on the Paris streets is admirable. John and Jackie Kennedy have just been to Paris and have obviously left an impression, especially on Mimi, who enters (to make a dramatic exit) wearing a sky-blue version of Jackie's ill-fated pink suit and pillbox hat made famous in Dallas two years later. (If costumer Susan Weigand didn't intend the similarities, the dress has been subconsciously imprinted into her style.)

The acting is a little rough at times, and the attention to farce from director Heather Riley isn't quite where it needs to be. But the play has enough texture and richness to make its comedy work and give its climactic twist a healthy dose of irony.

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