Cynthia Jeffery and Roberto Guajardo in Invisible Theatre's production of "An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf," about a rich man with a restaurant that serves only him. Yet he's decided to starve himself. TIM FULLER / INVISIBLE THEATRE

Michael Hollinger isn't a gourmand, a millionaire or a big Hemingway fan. But Victor, the main character in Hollinger's play, "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf," is each of those.

"An Empty Plate," which Invisible Theatre will open next week, is a comedy laced with drama about a very rich man (Victor), who quotes Hemingway often and has an exquisite restaurant in Paris that is open 24/7 and serves only him.

And he's decided to kill himself by starving to death. That stresses Victor's staff of a chef and waiters to no end - their purpose to life is to serve him. What will they do if they no longer can do that?

It is Hollinger's first play - one he wrote as an antidote to a too-structured film class.

"I thought I would like to start a big, fat, word-loving play that doesn't worry at all about structure," recalled Hollinger, talking by phone from Philadelphia, where he teaches theater at Villanova University.

"The joke was on me - a 90-minute play has to have a grueling structure. You have to keep the audience's attention."

Hollinger wrote the play 16 years ago, but he still can trace the genesis of it.

"I was in a restaurant at the time, and I thought the play should be about a guy who walks into a restaurant and wants to die."

That germ of an idea kept expanding, even to including Hemingway and bullfights.

"I didn't know Hemingway and bullfighting would have anything to do with it," Hollinger said.

"The physical space (of the restaurant) had to be used in a vivid way. I created an inventory of all the things that might be in this space. I could stare at a plate and look at my reflection; thought the swinging doors might hit someone; and a character sweeps a tablecloth from the table."

That last movement made him think of a bullfighter's cape, which naturally led to Papa Hemingway, he said.

About the same time, Hollinger had a co-worker who told him she was contemplating suicide.

"I was distressed, I was concerned, and I began to run through ideas why she shouldn't," he said.

"I wanted to bring these two together - this notion of wanting to write a play that relished language, and a play where the character had to make a passionate and lucid argument for living life instead of ending it."

The one-act presented some welcome challenges for director Samantha K. Wyer.

"Not every play is this complex," she said.

"When I first read it, I thought it was clever and very challenging - it combined Beckett light with shotgun comedy. When you put Hemingway, and thoughts of Hemingway, into a play, you're automatically in an existential place. Then you have the idea of somebody starving himself in the best restaurant in the world and turning it into a comedy."

What Wyer has worked to do is to bring out both sides of the piece.

"I think this play will be quite wonderful because we didn't go the easy route," she said.

"It could be a funny farce, but the harder job is to combine the comedy and drama so that truth is in every moment."

That approach is what Hollinger had in mind.

"I love a good comedy, but one of my imperatives is that every rewrite should get funnier and deeper. You want both of them so it wrenches you around emotionally."

Preview

"An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf"

• Presented by: Invisible Theatre.

• By: Michael Hollinger.

• Director: Samantha K. Wyer.

• When: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; opens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays, through May 16.

• Where: Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.

• Tickets: $16 for preview; $22-$25 for regular performances. Rush tickets one-half hour before curtain, depending on availability.

• Reservations, information: 882-9721.

• Cast: Sean William Dupont, Roberto Guajardo, Carrie Hill. Cynthia Jeffery, David Alexander Johnston and Brad Kula.

• Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

"I thought I would like to start a big, fat, word-loving play that doesn't worry at all about structure. The joke was on me - a 90-minute play has to have a grueling structure. You have to keep the audience's attention."

Playwright Michael Hollinger, "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf"

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

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