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Theater Review

Frump Tucker Theatre Company’s "AN EMPTY PLATE IN THE CAFÉ DU GRAND BOEUF" at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Michael Hollinger’s crisp one-act tragicomedy, "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf," exists in the realm of metaphoric abandon – with its decadent gastronomic surroundings expressing a "Carpe Diem"-like over-indulgence and an indefinable hunger of the spirit that sometimes accompanies such spectacular feasting. It requires a deft farcical verve without losing sight of the deeper issues weighing down its brooding protagonist – an American ex-pat recreating in 1961 Ernest Hemingway’s lusty Paris years of the 1920s.

Frump Tucker Theatre Company has obviously approached this play with unfettered joy and a keen eye for elegant detail. But, in a surprising disappointment for this typically on-the-mark troupe, its visually intriguing production at the Athenaeum Theatre suffers the same fate as the perpetually fumbling waiter Antoine – falling flat in the overall reading of the script.

Director Laura Wells has taken great pains to draw from her capable cast an array of beguiling, perfectly placed gestures and facial expressions. But, whenever the actors speak, their droning and unvaried delivery halts the work’s urgency and absurdist complexity. The actors manage the agile culinary-inspired choreography quite well, yet they fail to make the script come to wild and world-weary life. That major flaw also drains the play of its zany, breakneck philosophizing.

Reminiscent of "The Emperor’s New Clothes" from a dining perspective, "An Empty Plate" takes place in the aforementioned French café, where ex-pat journalist Victor is the only customer. Victor has just returned from Spain, and its bullfights, but decides to starve himself to death after losing his desire for inner nourishment. He also is in distress over the absence of "Mademoiselle" – a pivotal figure suggesting the end of romance and revelry.

Anal-retentive head waiter Claude and his sensual but unhappy lightning bolt of a wife, waitress Mimi – joined by persnickety chef Gaston and stuttering new waiter Antoine – attempt to coax Victor out of his self-imposed hunger strike by bringing him empty plates whose luscious unseen contents they describe in beguiling detail. But Victor does not give in to temptation, choosing instead to wallow in a lethal intellectual-emotional malaise. Only his Mademoiselle, who appears briefly toward the end, can offer him the peace of mind he craves.

The playwright experiments with notions of nourishment, mortality and our search for purpose in life. The actor portraying Victor, therefore, must traverse this complex terrain with a boldness, panache and heartfelt sense of resolution. Chuck Quinn, whose previous work has always proven exemplary, struggles with his interpretation of Victor – toggling between a vague flippancy and forced stoicism. He never sufficiently explores the battlefield that is Victor’s heart. And, like the rest of the cast, his delivery stays at one timbre with the occasional – and ineffectual -- increase in volume to make a point.

Vincent P. Mahler fares better as Gaston, remaining in control of his character’s infatuation with artistic meal creations. And Kelly Hogan sparkles with wonder, grace, curiosity and rebellion as Mimi – but her gestures speak louder than her line delivery, too. John King’s Claude is appropriately formal and conscientious, but Thom Goodwin’s sweet Antoine loses momentum half-way through the play. And Julie Eudeikis, known for her deep-thinking approaches to her roles, fails to evoke Mademoiselle’s mystery or quiet grace.

What makes this production pleasant to watch, however, is Brian Ham’s cozy and sophisticated café scenic design; Kevin Shaw’s moody lighting; and Sharon Lanza’s chic and starched costumes – particularly Mimi’s lime-green Jackie-O suit.

Frump Tucker has created a luxurious ambience, but the steak and pommes frittes of the play – the dialogue and the way it is spoken – have not been prepared according to this troupe’s usual standards of excellence and satisfaction.•

Frump Tucker Theatre Company’s production of "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf" runs through November 3 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $18. Call 312-559-1212 or log onto www.frumptucker.org.

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