Young people are falling in love again, kids are being bratty again, the old folks who parented the young people are being cranky and warping their grandkids’ minds with their loose talk. Age brings frailty; marriages wear out or wear down or break up; kids get further and further estranged from the clan as they grow. Death is a bowl of stew served with a loud clang. What did Gertrude Stein say? “Where there are men and women, it is sometimes rather awful, and when it is rather awful, there are sometimes children.” Stein would have taken Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) as an elegant theatrical incarnation of her statement, following four generations of familial infighting, incomprehension, and helpless grief through one unending metaphoric meal.
LeFranc’s structural model, as you might have already guessed, is The Long Christmas Dinner, the seminal one-act, published in 1931, by Stein’s friend and admirer, Thornton Wilder. The stately 19th-century family in Wilder’s allegory, its members arriving on the scene through a bright-wreathed portal stage right and hobbling off into eternity through a black-draped one stage left, is naturally more staid in its manners, as befits a long-cherished holiday ritual in an old family home. In LeFranc’s whizzy, fizzy, updated rendering, the mores and the language are both a good deal looser; birthdays and holidays are purely pro forma occasions, at which the cross-talk can sometimes get very cross indeed.
Nor are those the only differences. Wilder’s prosperous factory-owning dynasty carves a perpetual Christmas turkey; LeFranc’s multiple generations thrive on riffraffy, mostly Mexican, restaurant cuisine. Children, until they’ve grown up, don’t impinge on Wilder’s family, cushioned by a troop of domestic servants. LeFranc’s troupe includes a range of appalling kids (well played by Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney), exemplifying pretty much everything that makes you wish other people’s children could be barred from public places.
Sparse on detail, Wilder’s language is consciously stylized: Daughters and even daughters-in-law unconsciously pick up and repeat the truisms uttered by mothers. LeFranc, in contrast, employs a jaunty colloquial diction, salted with profanity, that provides him more opportunities for subtle variation than Wilder’s austere locutions. In a running gag that epitomizes LeFranc’s cunning sense of verbal filigree, Sam, the male half of the couple at the play’s core, keeps trying to retell his father’s favorite joke, but always gets the setup and punchline reversed.
Sam and Nicole (the two roles are played successively, as they age, by each of the cast’s three pairs of adult actors) meet in a bar where she is waitressing. They have a brief fling, she declaring that she doesn’t want a relationship, marriage, or kids, “cause who would do that to themselves?” They argue and split up, but destiny seems to be dealing them a marital hand, for they meet again (now played by the next-oldest pair of actors), and take up more seriously. Two kids emerge; Sam’s parents intrude as just the kind of doting-yet-hectoring grandparents no beleaguered mom needs. Disputes mount, a breakup looms—and suddenly the kids are teens (now played by the youngest pair of adult actors). And before you can blink, another generation arrives, recapitulating the last one’s conflicts. And too soon, here comes Death the waitperson with another clanging hot entrée.
Friskily inventive in its contrapuntal execution, LeFranc’s script has two shortcomings. One is its familiarity: Once you’ve caught on to the conventions it employs, the play’s overall shape becomes predictable. LeFranc abets this by sticking to recognizable, almost sitcom-like events, as if all American families, in our half-century of wild reconfigurations, were identical. In tandem with this limitation comes an absence of context, probably meant to heighten the play’s sense of pattern, that instead tends to make it seem vague. This is clearly our time, but our time, like Wilder’s, bears distinct historical markers, from which LeFranc’s generations seem oddly sheltered.
As enacted by the three couples in Sam Gold’s speedy yet sensitive production, though, LeFranc’s characters seem like people you’d mostly want to shelter: Tom Bloom, Jennifer Mudge, Cameron Scoggins, Phoebe Strole, and most especially Anita Gillette and David Wilson Barnes. Gold’s direction errs, I think, only in lingering excessively over the script’s would-be “Chekhovian” pauses. We get the point.