If life is a big meal, we should chew it thoroughly and taste it well before we get our last plate.
“It’ll be over before you know it,” suggested P.J. Papparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company, in his pre-curtain speech for the premiere of Dan LeFranc’s clever and affecting play “The Big Meal.” In many ways, his statement says it all, not just signaling the frenetic pace at which the 80-minute piece covers five generations of a middle-class Every-family but also summarizing the clear thematic intent: If life is a big meal, we should chew it thoroughly and taste it well before we get our last plate.It’s hardly a unique message, but certainly a universal one, and LeFranc (“Sixty Miles to Silver Lake”) conveys it with a smart theatricality, plenty of amusing, overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue, and a well-attuned sense of contemporary family dynamics in an age where families are more likely to eat out than eat in. The show gets off to an energetic and endearing start. In a series of very short scenes (the actors just reposition themselves around a table or switch glasses and we know it’s now a different time), a couple of young adults (Andrew Goetten and Lindsay Leopold) meet, insist on not getting into a relationship but get into a relationship, move in, break up, meet again, insist they hate kids, then suggest it was always only the other one who thought to get engaged, have kids, and get irritated frequently by his parents. That’s the first 15 minutes or so, I think. Maybe less. One’s sense of time does suspend itself amidst the intensity of narrative thrust, and director Dexter Bullard has done a bang-up job getting his uniformly outstanding cast quite literally up to speed. In addition to its staccato rhythms, the theatrical conceit is that, in the middle of the events described above, the actors who play the central couple are replaced by two others (Philip Earl Johnson and Lia D. Mortensen), who will portray them during their middle years. It will work that way throughout, with characters from successive generations being played at first by youngsters (Noah Jerome Schwartz and Emily Leahy – they grow skilled, charismatic kid actors on trees here in Chicago), then the young adults, then the middle-aged adults, then the – let’s just call them seasoned veterans (Will Zahrn and Peggy Roeder), who get the courtesy of being given many of the funniest and certainly the most profound lines. Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1931 one-act “The Long Christmas Dinner,” the play also bears a theatrical resemblance to A.R. Gurney Jr.’s 1982 play “The Dining Room.” While it may not (and need not) be the most original piece, it does possess a modern voice with subtle and insightful observations of our 21st-Century world; just as one example, it’s hard to imagine in either of those earlier plays a portrait of a kid who even the most patient parent would put on Ritalin. While it maybe runs out of surprises a bit early, and characters can fall into a generic quirkiness, overall “The Big Meal” is terrifically entertaining, moving and pretty darn exhausting. The actors, certainly, deserve a Big Tip.