The typical American family spends much of its lifetime eating in restaurants. Or so it seems to Dan LeFranc, whose clever new play, “The Big Meal,” observes five generations of a single family performing the rituals of their lives without getting up from the table. The play is ingeniously constructed so a modest ensemble can play all 30 members of the ever-expanding family, a feat that helmer Sam Gold and nine versatile thesps pull off with mathematical precision. But since only a few of the characters are interesting in their own right, the level of emotional involvement is ultimately limited.
With the modern domestic drama content to take its aesthetic cues from sitcoms, the sheer theatricality of this piece is refreshing. David Zinn’s set design is simplicity itself — two banks of tables, lights up on the expandable downstage table where the action takes place, lights low on the upstage level where actors sit and await their cues.
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Props are limited to a few basic table settings, and the same bored waitress materializes to hand out menus. This minimalist treatment leaves the audience free to visualize the sports bar/fast food joint/family restaurant/local diner/upscale eatery/coffee shop where each scene is set. Which is kind of fun.
Sam and Nicole, the couple who set this generational play in motion, are played by three sets of actors. Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins navigate these young singles from their first, awkward meeting in some pick-up bar-and-grill through their huffy breakup. Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes pick up the characters when they’re mature enough to sustain a relationship to the point of marriage. By the time Sam and Nicole become proud grandparents, Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom have taken over the roles.
But that bald outline doesn’t do justice to the intricacy of LeFranc’s dramaturgical design or to Gold’s ingenuity in staging it.
Once Sam and Nicole become parents, everything becomes more complicated. Their two children start life as a couple of brats (played with gusto by Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney). As the kids develop into surly teenagers, their roles are taken over by Strole and Scoggins, who hang in there until the kids grow up, marry and have children of their own, causing more role changes. Meanwhile, those actors not currently at the center of the action pop up as boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, children and in-laws of Sam and Nicole’s burgeoning brood.
LeFranc takes this game of musical chairs about as far as it can go to make the point that family behavior is basically ritualistic, with each generation thoughtlessly repeating the patterns of the preceding one and passing on its traditions to the next. But unlike “The Long Christmas Dinner,” the Thornton Wilder one-act that might have been an inspiration for LeFranc, this family doesn’t become more interesting as it grows in size. On the contrary, each generation seems diminished.
Not to blame the actors, because their ensemble work is impeccable. But the bland members of this archetypal family have little definition as individual characters. As the last person standing, Nicole has more presence than anyone else, allowing Gillette to discover emotional depth in the aging matriarch. And Scoggins, a recent Juilliard graduate, finds himself in the enviable position of playing a rebel grandson, the only character to challenge his elders’ superficial values.
What this play could use is more rebels and misfits like this bad boy.