The intimate setting of a Paris café in the early 1960's normally has an air of elegance and romance. But director John Rando offers another option: a setting that can provide both hysterical laughter and serious food for thought. Welcome to An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf.
Written by Michael Hollinger, the play--which began performances at Primary Stages on February 23--revolves around Monsieur Victor, played by George Wendt. A writer, gourmand and world traveler, Victor has made the Café du Grand Boeuf his only choice of restaurant for the past 14 years. And, as its benefactor, he has made himself its exclusive customer.
On this occasion, however, Victor arrives at the café to announce his decision never to eat again. Despite this shocking news, the restaurant staff--led by Claude, the headwaiter--prepares a sumptuous seven-course meal. Instead of serving it, they describe each dish to Victor over a series of empty plates, hoping to rekindle his appetite for living if they can get him to take just one bite. As the play develops, we find that Monsieur Victor's malaise is only one of the many disorders among the café's souls. "Each character in the restaurant has a very specific task," Rando says. "And the circumstances in which they work--maintaining this magnificent restaurant just for one man--are fascinating."
Although the play is having its New York premiere at Primary Stages, Rando is no stranger to this Café. In 1998, Rando directed a previous production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, where he is an artistic associate. He remembers that he had received a copy of Hollinger's play from a New York producer. After reading it, he immediately wanted to mount it for the festival.
"I found Michael's work to be funny, moving, and compelling," he says. "We assembled a terrific cast for the Berkshire Theatre Festival production, and several of them [including Jonathan Freeman and Nance Williamson] are repeating their roles at Primary Stages."
One of the things that drew Rando to the play is the sense of hunger, or longing, that became the thread linking the characters. The staff of the café long for something that is unattainable by each of them, which makes their various situations seem both comic and heartbreaking as the story unravels. Monsieur Victor, for instance, is a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway, and longed to live a life just like him. Mimi (Claude's wife, and the café's waitress) dreams of being Jackie Kennedy and yearns for a more glamorous world outside the bistro. Even Gaston, known as one of Paris' premier chefs, feels unfulfilled if he cannot create the perfect soup. "He's the kind of chef that, if you added salt once the soup arrived on the table, he would throw a fit and break dishes," Rando says. "So it's funny, in this strange environment, how they are under tremendous pressure to please this one man who is their boss and also their guest."
Since it is, arguably, a farce, An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf is rich in physical activity, emotion and wordplay. Rando recognizes this, and has sought to strike a balance among these elements in his direction. The initial step toward finding that balance was taken at the first reading when Rando and the cast discussed the world of the play, sharing their feelings about the characters and their ideas on how to develop them. "I like to create a positive environment for actors to go to town," says Rando. "I want them to develop the characters the way their instincts lead them. And I want to help them trust those instincts."
Rando has a long list of directorial accomplishments under his belt. A 1992 alumnus of the Drama League's Directors Project, his credits include recent New York productions of Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight at the Promenade Theatre and Do Re Mi for the Encores! Series at City Center. Most recently, Rando finished working with Neil Simon on his new play, The Dinner Party, which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. One of his most frequent collaborators is David Ives, whose plays Ancient History, All in the Timing, Mere Mortals, and The Lives of the Saints have all been directed by Rando.
"Each writer I've worked with has a unique voice and, therefore, a unique way of working on his or her play," Rando says. "Michael Hollinger loves the [theatrical] process; a different kind of personality comes out in his stories. David Ives works in short form, and that poses its own kind of challenges. Neil Simon has yet another approach."
Rando is delighted to be returning to Primary Stages, where An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf begins performances on February 23; he directed all of the company's productions of David Ives' plays--most recently, Mere Mortals in 1997. "[Primary Stages] is certainly an interesting environment," he says. "The theater itself is very intimate, 99 seats, so the plays are really in your lap as an audience member. That makes it a lovely place to work. And [Primary Stages artistic director] Casey Childs is great--a wonderful producer, a great lover of actors and theater."
As for An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf, Rando hopes that the show's audiences will enjoy the theatrical equivalent of a fine, three-course meal: strong performances, a memorable setting, and a charming production. "I like what the play says about creation and about writing," Rando concludes. "It's interesting for me as a director, because it's a play with two styles: a comic world, as well as the very serious point it's making. That's the kind of play that excites me, and this is a story I'm proud to tell."