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The Big Meal

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Wilson Barnes, Cameron Scoggins, Phoebe Strole, Jennifer Mudge, and Anita Gillette
Photo by Joan Marcus

Can a play be both wonderfully ambitious and not ambitious at all? If so, then The Big Meal certainly fits the bill. Dan LeFranc's generational smorgasbord, which Playwrights Horizons has just opened at its Peter Jay Sharp Theater, must rank as the most remarkable show yet seen this season, on or Off-Broadway, for reasons as related to how little it says as to how incredibly fully it says it. It's both the most and the least play you're likely to see at any theater in New York this year.

How do all these convolutions resolve themselves, you may ask? More easily than you might think, given that LeFranc has scripted this deceptively simple work to within an inch of its (outstanding) actors' lives, and Sam Gold has directed it with clarity and precision that rival those of his best work in his still-burgeoning but already estimable career (including Circle Mirror Transformation in this same space in 2009). Together the pair frees your mind from worrying about the seemingly impossible task they've achieved: crafting an epic saga of 80 years in the life of a single family, with only nine performers playing 20 separate characters—at each age and every stage.

Think of it this way. There are three central actresses: Phoebe Strole, Jennifer Mudge, and Anita Gillette. Strole plays characters from age 10 to about 30, Mudge from 30 to 50, and Gillette from 50 onwards; Rachel Resheff also occasionally steps in when a very young girl is required. This means that any given character may be played by two or three actresses, with the others simultaneously occupying the satellite roles that surround her. For example, Strole begins as a woman named Nicole, who begins dating a man named Sam. They're together for a while, then split up; they reunite years later, with Mudge now Nicole. She eventually has a daughter named Maddie, whom Resheff starts and then passes to Strole; later on in the show, Gillette has assumed Nicole and Mudge is Maddie. Four male actors (in chronological order: Griffin Birney, Cameron Scoggins, David Wilson Barnes, and Tom Bloom) do the same for the men.

Throughout 90 exhilarating minutes, everyone trades off, becoming everyone else's grandparent, parent, child, cousin, and even boyfriend or girlfriend—and yet it's all written and staged so elegantly that you never lose track of who is who. Any number of magical moments unfurl along the journey; my personal favorite was Sam and Nicole tussling with a pair of bratty kids and then, instantaneously and absolutely obviously, playing lovingly with their own children. Though every scene is set in some sort of a restaurant, the design contributes no confusion or excess of its own: David Zinn, who also did the costumes, uses only four tables, a collection of chairs, and a stage-spanning banquette to thrust us into any time and occasion.

It's the simplicity that energizes these effects, and few current directors handle that better than Gold. Nearly every moment onstage is a triumph of understatement, with no noise and no movement ever wasted. These people are, in any configuration, a family, and show it in the ways they wield joy, resentment, boredom, and everything else in between. All the performers are outstanding, but Mudge and Gillette sparkle just a bit brighter: the former because of how she captures an intense panoply of nonspecific cultural change, and the latter for how she integrates every event into a single straight-ahead package. Mudge invariably plays the self-directed firebrand with the habit of growing into the conservative woman determined to avoid making waves—it's a delicious setup that Mudge and Gillette execute flawlessly.

You may be expecting that The Big Meal falters because it couldn't possibly do all of its characters justice in such a short time, yet that's not at all the case; the relay-race style, coupled with all the actors' constant presence onstage, informing the action throughout, gives luxurious focus to everyone. No, the trouble is that, with all the extra time it has, the play doesn't have much of anything interesting to say about anyone in the family or what they're going through. With the exception of Sam's mom having invented Cadillac Margarita (that's a regular margarita with a splash of Grand Marnier), we learn almost nothing about anyone. This person has a sister, this person gets sick with this disease, this person is a serial dater, this person joins the military, okay—but little of it cuts deep, and none of it is vivid.

If LeFranc's intent with the people was, as with the restaurant setting, to show that these people could be any people, then he's gotten his wish. But the generalities grow wearying after a while; because you track so many members of the family for decades, you should come to know or care about them in concrete ways, and neither happens. If not for the actors and Gold, there'd be nothing transcendent about the evening at all. True engagement demands details, and absent them you may as well be watching a silent film farce.

The only times you're truly drawn in are the times the ninth character appears. The waitress, played with a captivating but mysterious stiffness by Molly Ward, is in true control of the proceedings, and her appearances with plates of food become the fulcra around which the rest of the action ultimately revolves. To say more about what she does would be to give away The Big Meal's most delectable surprise (and most haunting stagecraft), but let's just say that no one would be there without her. If the problem is that too often it seems as though no one's there anyway, it's almost forgivable given how resplendently everything else has been prepared. If indeed you eat with your eyes first, neither LeFranc nor Gold has anything to worry about. But when it comes time for your teeth, you can't help but wish they more frequently had something substantial to bite into.

The Big Meal
Through April 22
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
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