(an existential playlet)
(The spotlight is on me, sitting at a table covered with a red tablecloth. Disembodied voices)
(Voice 1): The Waiter? That’s an odd choice for a title! I mean, I could understand the Wizard, or the Warrior, something along those lines. But the Waiter? Sorry, it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi. All he does is wait on tables, after all. Which seems kind of silly, really. I mean, you can wait all you want, just because tables have legs doesn’t mean they are going anywhere. Although why something would be given legs if it can’t go anywhere, escapes me. But the Waiter? That just strikes me as an incongruous image.
(Voice 2): Ah, but wait. Give him a chance. You underestimate him. He is elegant, he is discreet, and most importantly, he helps you make the choices. His role is simple yet essential. He is the messenger, the bridge between your wish and its fulfillment. But here he comes.
(Stick-thin and spindly-legged, clad in a black tuxedo, the Waiter positively glides across the floor, the tray held jauntily yet firmly in his sensitive fingers. And now, with a napkin over his bent arm, he bows to introduce himself. As he does so, the place reveals itself. It is lit with a cozy, rosy light from candles and small table lamps. Classical music is playing softly in the background. The diners, half-hidden in the shadows, are well-dressed in evening clothes. Sounds of muted conversation and clatter of cutlery.)
W. Good evening, sir. My name is Victor. I will be your Waiter for tonight. Now, may I start you off with an aperitif? Some ors d’oeuvres perhaps?
I. No thank you. I’ll just come straight to the point, all right? The truth of the matter is, I am not here for aperitifs or ors d’oeuvres…
W. Oh? I see. Very well, in that case let me bring you the menu…
I. No thank you, that will not be necessary. I am actually ready to order. I would like to have… (a pause for effect) the House Specialty.
Sudden silence. Heads turn in our direction. Then the hubbub resumes. A subtle change, a ripple, runs over the Waiter’s smooth features. Then, like a pebble swallowed up by a pond, his face turns bland and calm again, a picture of polite accommodation and eagerness to please.
W. Ah. The House Specialty. Of course. An excellent choice, sir. And may I add what a pleasure it is to serve such a discerning person as yourself, sir. It might take a while to prepare…
I. That’s fine, I’ve got all the time in the world. I’ll wait.
W. (In sudden alarm, with an expression of anxious unctuousness) Oh, but sir, I cannot possibly let you do that. I am the Waiter, you see. I am the one who does the waiting.
I. Ha-ha, very good. (Then I see that the fellow is totally serious) I mean, you know, there is waiting, and then there is waiting… Never mind. What I mean is, I am not going anywhere, I’ll just sit here at this table (which is not going anywhere either, ha-ha), and I will wait for the House Specialty.
Another abrupt pause in conversation, heads turn in my direction, then the background noise of talk and clinking resumes.
W. (with a hurt expression, in a trembling voice). Well, if you insist, sir. But in that case (removes his napkin and places it on the table), you will have to be the Waiter. (With shaking hands, starts to take off his jacket) I have been working here for many years, sir, but I have never….
I. (with a bemused chuckle) Oh really. (The Waiter starts to loosen his bow-tie) All right now, that’s quite enough. (The waiter bends down stiffly to remove a shoe. I heave a resigned sigh) Fine. You are the Waiter. And I’ll just – oh, I don’t know – I’ll just sit here and, ahmm, anticipate – is that OK? Or how about – I‘ll relish the future prospect – no, hold on, I’ve got it – I’ll look forward with intense and mounting thrill to the imminent arrival of the House Specialty!
W. (Visibly relieved) Very good, sir. (Straightens his tie, puts his jacket back on, picks up the napkin, bows and exits stage. I shake my head, lean back and survey the other diners).
I don’t have to… anticipate long. It seems but a few minutes before the Waiter reappears, balancing a covered dish on his shoulder. He sets it down in front of me and, with a flourish, whisks off the silver lid.
W. Voila! The House Specialty!
A pause. All conversation stops. Faces turn towards us like pale flowers to the sun.
I. Well, that was quick. (I look down at the dish, then back up at the Waiter). Wait a minute. What is this?
W. (proudly) This, sir, is exactly what you have ordered. The House Specialty.
I. (completely mystified) I don’t understand… This is the House Specialty? Are you sure?
W. Of course, sir. Is there a problem?
I. Ahm… yes, I should think there is a problem. See for yourself.
W. (bends over the dish with reverence, regards it, even sniffs it with his eyes closed and a look of rapture on his face, then straightens up) Well sir, this is the House Specialty, no doubt about it, and cooked to perfection as always. Our chef is a true virtuoso, and this dish is his particular forte. Bon appétit!
I. (with another wary look at the dish, just to make sure) But … there’s nothing here!
Indeed, the plate is completely empty. In fact, as I take a closer look at the other tables, the diners engaged in lively conversations, bent over their plates, I can see – it’s strange I haven’t noticed it before – that their plates are empty too, the forks and spoons they bring to their lips are filled with nothing, they are chewing on empty air, and the crystal glasses from which they sip with such evident pleasure are completely empty as well. Meanwhile, the rosy cozy light is fading, to be gradually replaced by a dim neutral light that casts everything in black and white.
W. (shrugging apologetically) Well sir, I concede that it may not be an overly lavish serving. However – and you will be the first to agree once you’ve tried this dish – whatever it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality… But perhaps you have been led to expect something else? In that case, you might wish to choose another entrée…
I. (Removing my napkin, pushing back my four-legged chair – which is not going anywhere – and rising to my feet) No, I think I’ll pass. I must confess, the only reason I came all this way was to sample this one particular dish. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for. Your restaurant was highly recommended to me by people whose taste and opinion I used to trust. Until now, that is. Frankly, I had my reservations, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed!
W. (in alarm) Oh, but there is no need to be! A single mouthful, sir, and I am confident that your misgivings will be dispelled!
I. (with a tight smile) All right, you are obviously playing some kind of a… strange game here. Fine, though frankly I fail to see the point. But you can go right on playing the Waiter, and all these people (a nod in the direction of the other diners, who are studiously looking everywhere but me) can go on acting out this childish make-believe. You will forgive me if I just let you carry on without me… (I stop, struck by a realization) Wait a minute, is this some kind of a reality TV show? It is, isn’t it? OK, you had me there for a while… So, where are the hidden cameras? Come on, the game is up, you can tell me. (I look up at the ceiling, twist my head to the sides, peek under the table. Then, seeing the Waiter’s stricken expression) No, I guess not. Never mind then. Goodbye, and sorry to have taken up your time. (I turn to leave)
W. Just a moment, sir.
I. (turning around testily) Yes?
W. Your bill, sir.
I. (bewildered) My bill? A bill for what!?
W. (with wounded dignity) For the House Specialty, sir.
I. Let me get this straight. You want me to pay for something that’s not there?
W. (patiently). Look, sir, I have brought you your order, and you have refused to taste it or to even consider an alternative. I am sure you have your reasons, whatever they may be. Still, I am afraid you will have to pay for it, whether you have partaken of it or not.
I. (in exasperation). But this is preposterous! I would like to see the manager!
W. I am afraid that’s quite impossible, sir. (His lips twitch in a shadow of a smile, an inside joke he seems to share with the others, who are tittering and shaking their heads, but hurriedly look away and bend over their plates as soon as they feel my smoldering eyes on them)
I. And why is that?
W. There is no manager, sir.
I. Now why am I not surprised? Look, this is a restaurant, isn’t it? There has to be a manager!
W. Sorry, sir. No manager. We seem to be managing quite well without one. I guess you could say (another twitch of the lips for the surreptitious benefit of the audience) the place practically runs itself.
I. Oh, how very clever. Well, I am not staying here to have my intelligence insulted and my time wasted any longer! And I certainly have no intention of paying for nothing! Good night!
W. But sir, you have to pay. That is the rule!
I. You don’t say! And what are you going to do, call the guards? Fine! I would love to see what they make of this monkey business! As a matter of fact, I’ve half a mind to summon them myself, but I don’t want to waste another minute of my time waiting (the Waiter winces), yes, waiting for them to arrive. So consider yourself lucky. Good-bye and thanks for nothing! And as for you (a dismissive nod at the diners), you are all terrible actors! (I turn to leave).
W. (gliding close and putting a placating hand on my shoulder) Really, sir, why don’t you sit back down and enjoy your meal, and let the others enjoy theirs. I think that would be the best thing to do under the circumstances, don’t you?
I. (shrugging off his hand) Will you just cut it out! Enough is enough! Stop this ridiculous play-acting, all of you! Admit that this is all a farce, and a tasteless one at that! Then we can all have a laugh about it, I can take a joke even if it is at my expense, and leave it at that!
W. (firmly, looking me in the eye with utmost sincerity) Look around you, sir. We are a venerable and highly exclusive establishment that caters to a select and discriminating clientele. The fact that you are here speaks for itself. And I assure you, sir, there is nothing duplicitous or fake about it. I am the Waiter, and that is all I am. These people, whom you are so unjustifiably insulting, are the patrons of this restaurant. And you, sir, are causing a disturbance. Now please…
I. OK, that does it! I’m leaving!
W. You can’t go, sir!
I. And why is that? I have legs, don’t I?
W. (muttering to the side) Just because something has legs doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere…
I. What did you just say?
W. (his face instantly resuming its expression of patient entreaty). Look here, sir, I am sure we can settle this little misunderstanding like reasonable men. After all, this is all so much ado about nothing, if I may borrow the words of the immortal bard. If you refuse to exercise your sense of common decency, let me at least appeal to, as it were, you common sense. You say we are all actors. Very well. But if, and I say if, that is the case – and I am following the line of your own reasoning – well then, you either choose to sit back and enjoy the House Specialty (which, I should add, you’ve ordered yourself, but never mind that now), to be an actor in the midst of other actors, as it were, or, should you insist on distancing yourself from what you choose to call a “farce”, you automatically become the audience, and then (with a triumphant sideways glance at the rapt faces of the others), as I am sure you cannot fail but to admit, then, as a member of the audience, you have to pay for the performance (shrugging his shoulders). So you see, even by your own very logic (a pause, and then the clincher), you either play – or pay!
The others burst into enthusiastic applause. The Waiter acknowledges it with a bow of false modesty, wipes his face with his napkin, and sinks into the chair I had vacated, but then, remembering his role, immediately springs back up, throws the napkin back over his arm, and bends towards me. So what will it be, sir?
For once, I am speechless. You have to hand it to him, the fellow has good presence and great delivery. He almost had me fooled. Almost. I take a deep breath.
I. Look here, Victor, or whatever your real name is. If you think that this pretentious sophistry, served up in atrocious iambic pentameter no less, is going to convince me, think again! My time is precious, and I have already wasted a good deal of it on this nonsense. I cannot leave, you say? Just watch me!
With a determined step, I march towards the exit.
W. Sir? (with a plaintive tremble in his voice that stops me in my tracks. I stand there with my back to him, about to step off the edge of the stage). You say that all of this is nonsense, make-believe? That we are nothing, that all of our efforts are for nothing? Unkind, sir, most unkind. Forgive me for being blunt, sir, but you seem to be suffering from certain preconceived notions, a certain regrettable tendency to see things in terms of black and white, empty and full, all or nothing as it were. Don’t you see, sir, here you are an honored and respected, nay, I will even go so far as to say cherished, guest. I am your Waiter, and it is my privilege to serve you. This fine restaurant, of which we are all justifiably proud, has everything to guarantee our customers’ comfort and pleasure. And these (with a sweeping gesture at the other diners), these are your company tonight (nods, smiles and raised glasses). Now tell me, sir, isn’t that enough? What more can one possibly wish for?
I. (growing more and more flustered as his speech progresses, I take a step back from the edge and whirl around to face the Waiter). Are you quite done? Well, you can save your breath! This may come as a surprise to you, but out there is the real world, with real people, and… and… real restaurants with real waiters! And now I’m going back out there, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me! (I take a step back to the edge)
W. (with a sigh of resignation) You are right, sir, I cannot stop you. All I can do is beg you one last time to reconsider. Our restaurant may not seem real enough for you. But out there, sir (louder, with a catch in his voice) – and you know it as well as I do, so who’s the actor now? – out there, nothing is the only thing that’s real, and it is absolutely real, and as soon as you step out there, you too are absolutely nothing. You, sir, are about to make a tragic and irreversible mistake…
I. Oh, you’re a real piece of work, aren’t you! I know what you’re up to! You’re trying to entrap me and confuse me with all your chatter and your sentimental claptrap and your… Well, it’s not going to work! I tell you, I came from out there! You all saw me come in, didn’t you? (I appeal to the other diners, who avert their eyes in pained embarrassment.) You did, I know you did! (I whirl back to point an accusing finger at the Waiter, who is looking at me with mute pity) You… you… (I cast a helpless eye to my left)
A clearly audible whisper from the prompt corner at stage left: You are all in on it …
Right! You are all in on it together, aren’t you! I’m telling you, I come from out there, that is my world, the real world. (I get more and more agitated, almost sobbing with frustration). Out there, when you order something they bring you exactly that, not empty dishes, they bring you real food, real you see, hot and steaming, and if it’s not to your liking you send it back, you complain to the manager, every restaurant must have a manager, and then the matter is speedily resolved, they will apologize, they will make amends, they may not even charge you for the meal! And… and… yes, and when you do pay for something, you pay for something! It may not be the House Specialty, whatever that is, a lot of hogwash, a pie in the sky, I can see that now! It may not be your so-called ‘House Specialty’, but so what! So what! At least it’s something, that’s the important thing, isn’t it? I couldn’t care less if I never… Real, you understand! Not this, this…
I run out of steam and sputter to a stop.
(Audible whisper from the prompt corner): This absurd melodrama…
I just stand there with bowed head, looking down.
(A more urgent and louder whisper): This absurd melodrama…
I ignore the whispered prompts, and continue to stand there with slumped shoulders. An uncomfortable pause stretches on. Then the Waiter glides over to me, puts a diffident arm around my shoulders with an air of fatherly concern, and gently guides me back to my table. I sink back into my chair. The Waiter immediately assumes his usual solicitous position, pours from an empty carafe, and offers me the empty glass.
W. You are a little overwrought, sir, here, have some water.
Automatically, I take the glass and drain it gratefully.
There now, feeling better?
I mutely nod. The Waiter beams and rubs his hands together.
Wonderful! Now sir, for your House Specialty. It will have to warmed up, of course, that can’t be helped, but that’s no bother, no bother at all, leave it all to me, won’t take but a minute. In the meantime, do try this wine, a very good vintage if I say so myself. I won’t tell you what it is, but a real connoisseur like yourself should have no trouble recognizing it, I am sure. Believe me, sir, you will begin to see things in a very different light once you have tasted this wine. (He pours from an empty bottle). There you are, sir, on the house. I will be back before you know it.
He turns and glides into the dim background. Everything resumes meanwhile: the soft music, the clatter of cutlery, the muted conversation. For a while, I sit there with hunched shoulders, staring at the table. Then, listlessly, I pick up the wine glass and take an absent sip. Gradually my back straightens, I raise my head, take a deep breath and let myself relax and look around me. The place is actually quite nice in an understated yet elegant way that bespeaks quality and refinement. Subtle and appetizing fragrances are wafting from what I assume to be the kitchen. Here and there I catch reassuring, friendly glances from the other diners. In fact – it’s strange I haven’t noticed it before – some of the faces look quite familiar. It seems that I am in good company, and the evening has taken a decisive turn for the better. Everything is bathed in cozy rosy light again, as I lean back and look forward with intense and mounting thrill to the imminent arrival of the House Specialty, enjoying the warm glow that spreads through my limbs with each sip of the rich red wine, which, I have to admit, is excellent.