In his ambitious and technically impressive new play, Dan LeFranc creates a theatrical effect I thought only possible in films like Koyaanisqatsi. Over the course of The Big Meal’s 85 minutes, LeFranc portrays a couple meeting, dating, falling in love, giving birth to children, losing parents, having grandchildren, great-grandchildren and finally dying. Nine actors—spanning tweens to septuagenarians—play dozens of characters in this ultra-condensed transgenerational saga; call it time-lapse dramaturgy. It’s like telling the story of a person’s life in haircuts or doctor appointments. In this case, the threading events are dinners at restaurants. Difference is, when the grim server (Molly Ward) approaches customers with a plate of food, it’s time to settle up the bill in the mortal sense.
LeFranc’s previous New York production, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, used a similar winnowing trick: That play sketched out a painful father-son relationship through several years of car trips. The Big Meal uses a wider canvas. It is primarily the story of Sam and Nicole, two ordinary kids who meet in a restaurant (she’s a waitress) and end up producing an extended family. By the end, you will be amazed (as is the elderly Nicole, sweetly played by Anita Gillette) that so much has happened in what seemed like such a short time.
Still, after about an hour of being amused by the conceit and dazzled by the author’s virtuoso handling of multilayered group dialogue, a certain monotony creeps in. By choosing the jump-cut approach to storytelling, LeFranc necessarily sacrifices depth of character, and hence the intensity of our involvement. Some of these people’s individual arcs end in tragedy—cancer and Alzheimer’s have their inevitable cameos—but mainly, you watch them grow old and wait for them to die. Director Sam Gold and a uniformly strong cast (including the splendid Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes) juggle tones and roles deftly, but can’t inject more poetry or resonance than LeFranc puts in. It’s as if the writer were stymied by the limited repertoire of existence itself. You live, love and die; admittedly, it’s a skimpy menu.—David Cote
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