The program of Dan LeFranc’s new play The Big Meal identifies its setting as “a restaurant in the Midwestern United States, or rather, every restaurant in the Midwestern United States.” Great, I thought, a noxious blast of culture-war superiority before the thing has even started. (LeFranc grew up in southern California.) But once the actors are off the blocks—the sprinting metaphor is wholly appropriate—it quickly becomes plain that LeFranc isn’t dissing the heartland. Instead, he’s reaching for a universality that approaches abstraction, showing us the highs (new love, birth, forgiveness) and lows (infidelity, senility, death) of four or five generations of an utterly unremarkable American family. Or rather, every unremarkable American family, and all in the space of less than an hour and a half.
Like LeFranc’s 60 Miles to Silver Lake, which Studio 2ndStage mounted two years ago, The Big Meal is a clever formal experiment in just how concise stage storytelling can be. And also like that earlier production, it’s so expertly directed and beautifully performed that it feels warm and nourishing rather than cold and calculated, even if the “meal” of the title is one that most of us are in no rush to attend. Ever wonder why so many upscale restaurants dress their waitstaff all in black?
60 Miles’ cast of two is here expanded to eight, and its supercompressed span of years has likewise multiplied into a canvas of decades. In The Big Meal, actors hyperlink from one role to the next as the story leaps ahead by months or years without anything so clumsy as a blackout or costume change. Thus, Ashley Faye Dillard and Josh Adams meet cute as Nicole and Sam—a young couple whose unpromising early dates make up the first three or four minutes of the play—and soon reappear as Nicole and Sam’s offspring, handing off their original roles to Hyla Matthews and Chris Genebach.
Director Johann Gruenhut and the cast convey these time-leaps and role-swaps with exceptional grace and clarity. Whether it was Gruenhut or LeFranc who came up with the notion of using a few simple pieces of costume to help us track who’s who—a leather jacket for Nicole, a pair of glasses for Sam—it’s a smart device. The Big Meal, more than any play on Washington stages in recent memory, is truly an ensemble piece: The players’ synchronicity is as essential as a band’s. Still, if you were to weight the performances by degree of difficulty, Matthews and Genebach’s work would seem most extraordinary. They’re the ones tasked with showing us how youth thickens into middle age, and they pull off the illusion physically and vocally without assistance from makeup or wardrobe. Acting classes prescribe these kinds of exercises all the time, which takes nothing away from the fact that it works phenomenally. But then, even the child actors in this production, Maya Brettell and Sam O’Brien, are uncommonly convincing.
Timothy R. Mackabee’s set gives us just enough detail—leather bench seats, opaque glass, brass sconces—to suggest a blandly welcoming family restaurant of indeterminate period. John Burkland’s lights and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound cues and original score facilitate the rapid changes in physical and temporal locale without leaving us feeling lost.
The only questionable note comes late, when Adams, now playing the troubled grandson of Sam, the character he introduced in the opening scene, disintegrates following the death of his mom. (I think he’s the grandson at this point; the generational turnover becomes a blur by the end, I believe intentionally.) In a weirdly showy speech that could’ve come from the mouth of Holden Caulfield his phony-abjuring self, Adams bemoans our world of “assholes” before running off (he says) to enlist in the military. Is it a false moment, or a truthful one from a deeply unlikable character? This is the sort of play that invites such questions, squishing together all the flubbed lines and melodramatic confrontations and wardrobe malfunctions and missed cues and abrupt exits that accrue into a life.
It’s isn’t perfect, but it sure is sublime.
Due to a reporting error, the review originally misidentified the actor who plays the character Nicole in the middle stages of her life. She is Hyla Matthews.