With “An Empty Plate in the Café de Grand Boeuf,” the Laguna Playhouse engages in an intricate guessing game with its audience, and Michael Hollinger’s new play serves up a veritable banquet of surprises before the last strain of “Lady of Spain” heralds the final fadeout.
Hollinger, who toyed with Laguna audiences last season in the delicious “Red Herring,” is back with a tour de force for one exceptional actor and some occasionally meaty bits for the other five cast members.
The playwright deftly mixes elements of comedy and tragedy in a work that teases both the emotions and the intellect.
Grandly staged by Andrew Barnicle, the playhouse’s artistic director, “An Empty Plate” centers on American millionaire Victor Bullard, who owns what may be the world’s greatest restaurant, which remains open for one single patron — Victor himself. It’s a splendid conceit rendered justifiable by a fine Laguna cast.
On this particular evening in 1961, Victor arrives in a foul mood. His hero, Ernest Hemingway, has just committed suicide and Victor has broken up with his longtime love during a holiday visiting the bullfights in Madrid. He announces his intention to starve himself to death and seeks his employees’ cooperation in describing a seven-course meal but serving him merely a series of empty plates.
The character of Victor must dominate the stage like Nero at the burning of Rome, and Adrian Sparks does just that in a superlative performance of both intellectual cunning and visceral fire. It doesn’t hurt that Sparks has won an award for playing Hemingway in a one-man show and is intimately cognizant of the famed author.
Sparks delves into many layers of his conflicted character as he dictates his life story to the stuttering busboy (Graham Miller) who attends him, brightening his mood with repeated renditions of “Lady of Spain” — the only tune he knows — on his tuba.
Jeff Marlow delivers a crisp, commanding performance as Claude, the waiter with an elevated view of his own importance, barking out orders like a Nazi storm trooper and clashing with his unfulfilled wife, the waitress, nicely enacted by Stasha Surdyke.
The excitable chef, whose own ego collides with Claude’s on several occasions, is given a volatile interpretation by Mark Cardiff. And Amy Kay Raymond is delightful as Louise, Victor’s elusive paramour, who shows up for the bittersweet final segment. Bruce Goodrich, who created the intricate setting for Hollinger’s “Red Herring” in Laguna, excels in this simpler scenic rendition. Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes are quite effective and the production is abetted nicely by Paulie Jenkins’ lighting design.
Performed in a 90-minute stint without intermission, “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf” is mesmerizing in its mixture of comic and dramatic moments. And Adrian Sparks makes a magnificent matador.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf”
WHERE: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays until June 28 (special performances at 2 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. June 21).
CALL: (494) 497-2787
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.