February 07, 2012 2:27 PM
By T.D. MOBLEY-MARTINEZ
At its best, theater transports you — not just to another time and place, but to dilemmas and emotions that resonate despite the unfamiliar circumstances.
On Saturday, I found myself in a five-star Parisian restaurant built to satisfy one mission. They fulfill the 24-7 culinary whims of an American newspaper magnate, who, at the start of the play, informs his zealous staff that he going to starve himself to death.
Perverse, funny and darkly poetic, director Elizabeth Kahn-Lanning’s production of “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf” (in its final weekend) delivers brisk pacing, truly dimensional performances and a walk-to-your-car glee that is all too rare in local theater.
Victor (Michael Miller) is not himself when walks through the doors the Café du Grande Boeuf. His longtime mademoiselle is absent and the many snippets of Hemingway he drops into conversation are taking an increasingly melancholy tone.
Informed of his grim intentions, his staff is doubly stunned — to kill yourself is one thing, but to reject the cafe’s inspired offerings, their collective raison d’être, is hard to swallow.
As Victor unravels his backstory, including why he wants to die, the staff does their best to tempt him with a seven-course meal to ... er, die for.
Kahn-Lanning keeps things moving beautifully without sacrificing comic timing needed to pull this odd (and oddly affecting) story off. Perhaps more important, these six actors crafted characters with shades and colors that give a human foundation to the delicious repartee that drives the show.
Miller, a member of the Springs Ensemble Theatre, is fearless on stage, and here, he renders Victor with real complexity. It beautifully culminates in a pyrotechnic climax of resignation, yearning and despair. Kudos. As in other productions, though, his nuanced work is too often lost in an intermittent lack of enunciation. It’s never more troubling than in the all-important climax, where his story dissolves, here and there, into a mumble.
No one stands straighter on the stage and with more Parisian self-regard than Sarah Sheppard Shaver and Greg Lanning, who play the unhappily married hostess Mimi and head waiter Claude. As their waiter-in- training Antoine, Micah Speirs had less banter to finesse, nevertheless, he believably walks the vulnerable character through significant changes.
All and all, they were spot on.
Dylan Mosley’s big-hearted galoot of a chef, Gaston (of course), is eminently huggable. Mosley is particularly good at crafting intense roles, and Gaston is certainly that. But was there an accent there or not? Unfortunately, the lack of precision muddied the performance a bit.
Although Alysabeth Clements Mosley has little stage time as Victor’s beloved mademoiselle, she revealed a little teacup tour de force. Her Miss Berger is just right, a woman who could have walked off a Vogue cover circa 1960. Clements Mosley practically breaths the delicate self-assuredness of a woman of wealth, social standing and education. It was a pearl of a performance.
Finally, hats off to Curt Layman and Kahn-Lanning for the elaborate set, which was used to excellent effect.