For reasons too obvious to list here and now, the most thoroughly satisfying new American plays — those that feature strong characters, compelling subject matter, and vivid dialogue but nothing in the way of cheap thrills — rarely come to light on Broadway anymore, though many still get there eventually.
Instead, look to Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and the country’s finest regional theaters as the birthplaces of dramatic works that feed the intellect and the soul rather than relying on major stars and/or sensationalistic content to appeal to the masses.
The latest not-to-be-missed gem is Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, which had its world premiere at the American Theatre Company in Chicago and is now in the midst of an extended run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. It’s an alternately funny and heartbreaking take on the human comedy as viewed through the joys and sorrows that visit a nuclear family over four generations, from the initial date of a young man and woman (who both insist they are not looking for a serious relationship) through the births, lives, and sometimes deaths of their children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren. All of this is played out in short scenes set at various restaurants, hence the title.
The brilliant gimmick (if you will) of the script and the production is that only eight actors portray all of the generations of the family, and they do so in succession. In other words, the prodigiously talented twenty-somethings Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins, who initially appear as the couple that started it all, later play that same couple’s children as young adults, and later still their grandchildren as young adults.
Similarly, multiple generations are beautifully played by Rachel Resheff and Griffin Burney (as the pre-pubescent kids), Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes (as the middle-aged adults), and the honored theater veterans Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom (as the grandmas and grandpas). There is one other character: a server (Molly Ward), whose function here can’t be described without spoiling one of the most quietly stunning coups de theatre I’ve ever experienced. (It’s repeated several times during the course of the proceedings, so you can really savor it.)
The acting from all concerned is so wonderfully natural, and Sam Gold’s direction so sensitive and skillful, that an already extraordinary play achieves the stature of true greatness. Somehow, The Big Meal has an epic feel to it even though the cast is relatively small, the running time is only about 90 minutes (with no intermission), and the events depicted are no more or less significant than the low-level triumphs and tribulations that befall an average American family over the course of half a century or so.
If there’s any justice left in the theater, The Big Meal will become beloved through productions in myriad venues throughout this country and the world. But in any event, I urge you to catch it at Playwrights Horizons if at all possible. For that advice, let me say in advance, “You are entirely welcome.”