The Big Meal Is Family Drama Without the Bill

Who doesn’t love a drawn-out meal with relatives? And when that meal is rife with passive-agressive feuding, subtle insults and your inlaws’ excessive drinking–well, who doesn’t love that?

Even if that doesn’t sound delicious to you, the cast of The Big Meal (at Playwrights Horizons through April 29) offers up something along those lines, only better. Perhaps because the actors are exceptional at whipping through clever dialogue at dizzying pace while playing several roles over the 90 minutes. Or perhaps because they are not your family.

But they may be close. I found many reasons to laugh and a few at which to cry while watching family drama unfold over the course of four generations. Dan LeFranc’s moving picture of love, birth, sickness, death (which targets several characters, executed each time through a surly and silent waitress)–and every meal in between–is familiar without being cliche or maudlin.

Sam and Nicole are the first characters we meet. They are at a restaurant where Nicole works, meeting for the first time. Barely willing to become a couple, their story begins and continues as they fall in love, break up, reconcile, become parents, become grandparents, and–catch your breath with me–become great-grandparents.

And we are always at a restaurant–the greatest backdrop for all drama in my opinion. I have had my share of couple fights, family arguments and tense conversations with inlaws while waiting for desert to be served. Love begins, wanders, circles back at many tables in The Big Meal. Always there is the complication of family and the relief of a cocktail; lines like “Why don’t you have another drink?” stung Nicole the mother but also, maybe, a few of us in the audience.

As we are carried through the lives of Sam and Nicole’s family on the feverish pace of dialogue and character changes, we can’t help but experience their celebrations, their losses and disappointments, their fear as we remember–and anticipate–our own. Many of the audience at the afternoon show I attended were older–they were the grandparents; I was the mother of young children. Our reactions were different. Because they had been through it? Because watching your children marry and move away is their present, my future? Who can say whether it is harder to imagine, or to go through, life’s journey.

At the end of the play, the young have become old; the healthy, sick. Yet each character’s core remains (which is a tremendous accomplishment as the actors transform without costume changes into characters of different ages). When I was younger, my mother told me that she never felt her age–we get older, we get old, and we wouldn’t know it if not for our ailments, our families’ growing up around us.

The great American writer John Updike has a short story called “My Father’s Tears.” Toward the end of the story, the main character also reminds of us this.

But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the homebred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.

For me, The Big Meal is also about time and family: the two things we clearly can never control.

{The Big Meal: Written by Dan LeFranc and directed by Sam Gold, featuring David Wilson Barnes, Griffin Birney, Tom Bloom, Anita Gillette, Jennifer Mudge, Rachel Resheff, Cameron Scoggins, Phoebe Strole, Molly Ward.}

My ticket was provide by the wonderful people at Playtime! I have become a very big fan of this program as my children loved it. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Playtime! provides an opportunity for parents to have an incredible theatrical experience at some of the best, most high-profile Off-Broadway theaters in town while their children have a cultural experience of their own, playing and being creative with real-live NYC artist, musicians, actors, dancers and more. A real New York cultural experience for parents and kids alike, and at an incredibly affordable price.

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