ST. PETERSBURG — Waitress Mimi and headwaiter Claude ready the best table in the house — white linens, an alabaster pillar candle, cut crystal. But then the unthinkable happens. The restaurant's best customer, the restaurant's only customer, arrives not even a tad peckish.
"I've lost my appetite. Appetite is hunger with hope," Victor, a.k.a. Monsieur (the dashing Patrick Ryan Sullivan) intones near the beginning of Michael Hollinger's An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, playing through Feb. 17 at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Set in 1961 Paris just days after the death of Ernest Hemingway, this "comic tragedy in seven courses" pays tribute to "Papa" while simultaneously channeling absurdist Samuel Beckett.
In the most ambitious restaurant in the world (why no menu? Claude explains: "Because we have everything!"), the restaurant's owner and sole patron refuses to eat. Returning from the bullfights in Madrid without his beloved, Victor will starve himself. The cafe staff makes a last-ditch deal: Can they prepare one final meal for Monsieur, provided they leave it in the kitchen?
The show unfolds in a miasma of smells and luscious adjectives, the small cast deftly moving between hilarity and bleak existential despond on a spare, three-table set. Headwaiter Claude (the irrepressible Matthew McGee in a role just slightly less outré than his recent turn in American Stage's Rocky Horror Show) is the ringmaster of sorts, putting Mimi (Natalie Symons), stuttering waiter trainee Antoine (Greyson Lewis) and chef Gaston through their culinary paces.
Played with gentle equipoise by John Lombardi, Gaston spends much of his time offstage, preparing a meal designed to bring back Victor's joie de vivre — the audience in the small blackbox theater getting wafts of roasting meat and garlic cooked gently in bubbling butter. Drawing from restaurant menus' most unrestrained hyperbole, Claude paints verbal pictures of what's on each empty plate.
Chateaubriand, "the grandest boeuf of all," is married with "winsome shallots, beguilingly roasted to perfection, titillated onions and buxom tomatoes" — clearly a reminder of the nearly vascular connection between food and sex. Victor is unmoved, choosing instead to dictate his obituary to Antoine while the parade of empty plates returns kitchenward.
Until the crème brûlée, that ultimate siren's song of heavy cream and brittle caramel crust.
The 90-minute one-act is largely played for laughs, the smart repartee between staff and sole customer fast and loose (Claude's recitation of fancy French fromages would do a cheesemonger proud). That is, until Mademoiselle (Roxanne Fay in an unfortunate pageboy wig) shows up in red dress and red hat to watch her erstwhile love dip his spoon in the custard.
Their romance tragically star crossed, the couple will always have their memories of the Grand Boeuf, Victor savoring his last brûlée bite.
Because, as Claude so matter-of-factly explains, "There's no use starving on an empty stomach."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.