History Resonates through the Lives of Families in "The Big Meal"





3-26-12

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Big Meal
Playwrights Horizon
416 W. 42d Street
New York, NY

The Big Meal, Dan LeFranc’s new play that just opened at Playwrights Horizon in New York, is the story of eighty or so years of one family’s history. The story is told in a series of encounters that take place around a collection of dinner tables in a restaurant. The "big meal" is the big tent of the family’s story and, decade by decade, reflects American history.

At first, the restaurant setting seems unusual and so does the play, but after twenty minutes or so the drama builds and you are caught up in the story. The play moves along like a deep, wide river, the current pulling you farther and farther downstream. You can’t get away.

The story starts somewhere in the late 1960s, when Sam courts Nicole and marries her. It then moves along through a number of generations to 2012 (there are some throwback stories told about the family in the Great Depression, too). Throughout, parents constantly meet the boyfriends and girlfriends of their kids. The kids get married, well and not so well, and have their own kids, who are charming and not so charming. They bring home their own girlfriends and boyfriends. The process moves on. Then people tumble into history and become victims of diseases of their eras. One woman dies of breast cancer. An elderly man dies of Alzheimer’s. One young man, howling about the reluctance of Americans to help the people of the world when they are in trouble, enlists in the army and is killed (hard to tell if this was in Vietnam or Iraq).

The death of each family member is represented by a "big meal" served to them by a steely waitress without feeling who never speaks. Everyone watches the loved one eat the big meal and die, as we all watch loved ones pass on.

The power of the play is that everybody in the audience, no matter when they were born, sees themselves and their families in the story. There are the wild little kids who drive everybody crazy, the middle-age man who appears to be having an affair, the elderly grandparents who are treated like fools, the young lovers who fight all the time, the guy who loses his job. This family is like everybody’s family. The Big Meal is universal American history.

At one point, someone says that no attention is paid to death, that the family just moves on. Well, that’s right. That happens in every generation represented here, from the 1960s to the present. We just move on. We go on in grief and loss, though. There is a very poignant scene in which a grandmother, treated rather badly by all, tells a woman who just lost her husband that when she lost her own husband, a therapist had her write the deceased man letters every day to ease her own pain. It worked.

Anita Gillette, the veteran Broadway star, steals the show as the woman who perpetually plays the grandma. At the end of the play, as a very old woman, smiling to the audience, she marvels at the large and vibrant family she lived in and created and symbolically indicates that her family, with all its problems, joined with other families, and all their problems, over the years, to form the American family.

LeFranc has written a good, contemplative play. The actors do a fine job. Director Sam Gold has taken what could have been a very unwieldy story and made it work. He gets good performances from Gillette and, in the ensemble, Tom Bloom, Jennifer Mudge, David Wilson Barnes, Phoebe Strole (a skilled Nicole), Cameron Scoggins (particularly good as Sam) and Molly Ward. The hyperactive kids, Rachel Resheff, Griffin Birney are terrific.

The script needs a little help. The play has a slow start and it takes a while for the audience to catch up with the plot. Throughout, there are too many long moments where the actors have little to do besides stare at each other. It is, at times, hard to follow actors when they transform into characters of the next generation. Some scenes are repeated two or three times to get a different person’s view of the story and this does not work. The play really needs to gives the audience a better sense of history and what years the story is moving (such as the young soldier who is killed and whose army life is not explained).

The play, though, spins a hard to define spell on the audience and you get pulled into the story. It is a family drama and, at the same time, an American drama.

PRODUCTION:  Produced by Playwrights Horizon. Sets: David Zinn, Lighting: Mark Barton, Sound: Leah Gelpe. The play is directed by Sam Gold.
 


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