Sunday, March 25, 2012

NEW YORK REVIEW: "AND WHAT AM I GONNA ORDER?" "EVERYTHING." - 'The Big Meal' at Playwrights Horizons

 (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Playwright Dan LeFranc is giving an explosive master class in extended metaphor with his striking, poignant, and almost farcical The Big Meal, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons.

LeFranc's expansive new play rides on one overarching idea - Life is one big meal, and today no one has the time to cook it. Here, the contemporary American experience is displaced from the living room, and set, Id say more appropriately, in a chain restaurant (designed by David Zinn). It is a conceit that sounds contrived when read or heard outside of context, but within the framework of LeFrancs play, these meals are absolutely breathtaking and astoundingly resonant.

It all begins with the meeting of Sam and Nicole a first date that gives life to an eighty year long story of a multi-generational family, depicting marriage, squabbles, children, teens, birth and death. In just under two hours, people come and people go; tables get added; tables get taken away; and at its peak, The Big Meal's dinner table spans just short of the entire width of the stage.

And on that bland looking dinner table, many appealing, delicious, and, most intriguingly, literal plates of food are nibbled, enjoyed, and scarfed down And not stage food like wimpy iceberg lettuce or crumbling Wonder Bread, but creamy pasta, grease-packed burgers, and other rich items mimicking the rich potential of a life well-lived. And the actors really eat them.

God here is envisioned as the restaurants zippy waitress (Molly Ward) carelessly dropping your plate in front of you at any given moment, and taking it away without consideration of whether youve taken your last bite. When an actor finds a plate in front of him, he easily and gracefully picks up his fork and eats. No frills, no spoken-word aria of woulda coulda shoulda - just simple eating.

The entire experience reflects that ease. The Big Meal is physically very modest, but structurally not so much. Each scene typically lasts no more than a few minutes, and the shifts in time and place are quick, subtle, and entirely actor-driven. As the play begins, the feel is reminiscent of David Ives quainter one acts, but it quickly transcends the quirky, perhaps gimmicky nature of its methodology, creating ample, textured drama. Director Sam Gold stages the play in a deft way that removes his directorial hand, and allows this hardworking group of actors to just act.

The ensemble of nine depicts several generations of one family at different stages of their lives; smartly changing up their personalities to reflect not only their physical age, but also the world they grew up in.

David Wilson Barnes plays a middle-aged man, often a parent, and he is covered in that awkward, cringing sense of humor that embarrasses so many a teenaged daughter. The middle-aged woman, Jennifer Mudge, has a parental authority that can turn to youthful ambivalence with a moment’s notice. The two young children, Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney, are annoying, as they should be.

As the older man and woman, Tom Bloom and Anita Gillette, change with the decades, portraying the shifting outlooks of different generations elderly people. Gillette’s final moment is profoundly moving, and will assuredly stay with you for a long time.

Moving thought it may be, the play never exploits empty sentiment, although there is ample opportunity for it to do just that. LeFranc writes much of the dialogue in a realistic, overlapping manner that leaves no room for preciousness or languid rumination. These characters have places to go and people to see.
Cleverly LeFranc represents that syrupy relationship milestone, the wedding, with only a minute-long, condensed highlight reel of the reception - with the whole family dancing their brains out and screaming an upbeat, techno version of 'Sweet Caroline'. And when it comes right down to it, we all remember the wedding reception better than the wedding, right?

An absence of pushy sentiment aside, there has not been a more moving piece of theatre onstage this year than The Big Meal. And it stirs the emotional center without exploiting easy feelings. Its not a nostalgic play, as so many familial Americana plays tend to be, but an intelligent, theatrical conjecture. Its a clip show of events, some insignificant and some major, but the tear jerking moments are all harnessed in the speedy interaction, broken up by the heart wrenching meals.

During its Chicago run at American Theatre Company, many favorable and deserved comparisons were made to Thornton Wilders seminal work, Our Town. Our Town, if youve never been to high school, is about the ups and downs of life in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. But beyond both of these plays being temporal (yes Our Town is entirely temporal) explorations of family life, the similarities stop. Our Town reflects upon a calmer time when our actions were elongated, and we sat back and smelled the flowers, and Wilder relates war to the undoing of all that.

The Big Meal takes place during a different, but nonetheless significant, crossroads in American history the Scientific Revolution redux, displaying the effects 24/7 technological intervention will eventually have on todays American family. And Im not just talking about computers and iPhones, but also our inundation with television, the ability to carry our entire music library in our pocket, and the expectation that we must be perpetually reachable by phone. The world has changed for better or worse, and if you are resistant to that change, you may resist the play as well.

The Big Meal certainly hits home in contrasting ways with people of different generations. LeFranc, with his final scene, frames the play as a cautionary tale - implying that our nasty habit of immediacy and instant gratification is perhaps detrimental to our societys future and our own personal sustenance.

At the end of the play, Nicole, the first we became acquainted with, is a great grandmother, with her great granddaughter knowing her only as lady and we the audience struggling to remember which character the older actress is playing at this point.  

The idea that it is nearly inevitable that we will forget our ancestors, even the living ones, troubled me greatly. In the short time since I saw the play, Ive looked at how I treat my family with far greater consideration than I did before. I maybe didnt get to know every character with the familial intimacy of a well-made play, but I approached getting to myself a little better - a more worthwhile achievement, in my opinion.

The night I saw The Big Meal, there were a actually few families in the house. My favorite moment of the play, and the moment which assured me of its genius, was a particularly outspoken reaction from a child sitting close by. There is a craftily staged scene where the same twentysomething actor (Cameron Scoggins) and actress (Phoebe Stroll) play a parade of boyfriends and girlfriends, all with the same basic characteristics, but with different names and, for the life of them, the parents cannot tell the difference.

The little boy in front of me impatiently blurted out, I dont understand whats going on! and I silently thought to myself, Oh, you will…”-Johnny Oleksinski

'The Big Meal' runs through April 22 at Playwrights Horizons.