Take a bite

St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre talks food, Hemingway, love, and death in An Empty Plate in the Café du Grande Boeuf.

click to enlarge HUNGRY FOR MORE: The staff at the Café du Grand Boeuf hopes to convince Victor to live through the kitchen’s delicious dishes. - SHANNAGILLETTE.COM
HUNGRY FOR MORE: The staff at the Café du Grand Boeuf hopes to convince Victor to live through the kitchen’s delicious dishes.

The trifecta of passions for food, classic old school journalism and Ernest Hemingway synch seamlessly in Michael Hollinger’s comedy, An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, opening Jan. 25 at the freeFall Theatre.

“The story haunted me for a little while,” said director and freeFall artistic director Eric Davis. “The more I looked, the more I saw. I hope the audience experiences that too.”

The Café de Grand Boeuf, a restaurant that serves only one man, millionaire and former journalist/media tycoon Victor (played by Patrick Ryan Sullivan) and his Mademoiselle (played by Roxanne Fay).

On a hot July night in 1961, Victor decides to kill himself by starving to death in the comfort of his favorite eatery, without his Mademoiselle Louise. It’s obvious that something very painful has happened between them.

Maître d’ Claude (played by Matthew McGee) and wife and waitress Mimi (played by Natalie Symons), chef Gaston (played by John Lombardi), and young waiter Antoine (played by Greyson Lewis) are baffled by this decision.

All but Antoine try to convince him life is worth living. But between unrequited love, longing and relationship problems, their arguments continually fall short.

Except for the young stammering waiter Antoine, who when asked why one should continue living, simply responds with “why not?”

Claude proposes a compromise; one final and ultimate meal, described to Victor in mouthwatering detail. The staff hopes to trick him by making something so irresistible that he simply must eat, but Victor remains resolute (though tempted at times) onlying miming a bite from each course.

And as he goes, he has young Antoine record his life story. Victor is a salty old journalism type, griping constantly that no one reads the paper anymore.

“I look at the food section sometimes,” the no-nonsense Chef Gaston bellows.

The irony is not lost on this food and drink editor. Journalists should go see this show for the witty commentary on the state of the industry.

Victor is obsessed with Hemingway, often quoting or accessing Hemingway through his storytelling, but with bigger words.

“He idolizes Hemingway,” said Patrick Ryan Sullivan of his character Victor. “He talks about meeting Hemingway once and it’s a really fantastic interaction.”

Sullivan says the play and its homage to Hemingway is reminiscent of the first work he read by Hemingway, To Have and Have Not.

“The last two pages just punched me in the gut,” Sullivan said of Hemingway.

“It’s interesting because this story does the same thing.” The very palatable tragedies are explored through big laughs and cutting confessions about life, love and longing.

“I don’t want crème brulee,” Victor declares to Gaston. “I want to die.”

You will laugh, a lot. You will cry too. You will get punched in the gut in the last two pages, taking the air right out of your lungs.

“It’s really a call to action to live our lives fully,” director Davis said.

And when you leave, something profound remains, as director Eric Davis said before, the story will haunt you.