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A CurtainUp Review
The Big Meal

". . .where does the time go? "— Woman 1. When she's introduced to her great great-granddaughter she reflects "we started something didn't we? we really started something."
The Big Meal
Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Time does indeed fly by in Dan LeFranc's familiar yet wonderfully original 85-minute tour through the life cycle of a typical American family. It hits all the bumps in the road along the way. The Big Meal doesn't dwell too long on either good times or bad but, by the time the last meal is eaten, it reveals a thought provoking universality.

As we watch a commitment wary first date turn into a long-lasting relationship, it's clear that LeFranc's Nicole and Sam really do start something. Their marital journey encompasses less than ideal in-laws as well as children who add their own branches to the family tree.

I suppose you could call The Big Meal a streamlined post modern Our Town saga, with Nicole and Sam's story, no longer playing out in the kitchens and streets of Grovers Corners but confined to a table in a generic restaurant. In many ways it is, right down to Thornton Wilder's ground-breaking abandonment of kitchen sink realism. LeFranc's anywhere USA restaurant has few props. Salmon, shrimp, hamburgers and cornboys are ordered, but the only meals actually served and eaten are when the play detours into metaphoric, meta-theatrical territory courtesy of the restaurant's silent Server.

Though Thornton Wilder is very much an unseen ghost hovering over The Big Meal, this is not a copy-cat Our Town. And though it dishes up a realistic number of family problems, neither is this yet another dysfunctional family drama. Instead The Big Meal is the Real Deal: An innovative, intelligent, entertaining play.

In less capable hands, the stylishly economical construction might confuse the audience and come off as too gimmicky. Indeed, the playwright's use of the restaurant setting and having eight actors morph into almost thirty characters is quite a theatrical hat trick and attention must be paid to keep up with the chameleon role assignments. It's possible that you'll occasionally find yourself getting a bit lost as to what's happening to whom, but, as moved from page to stage by director Sam Gold and his ensemble, everything becomes remarkably and most effectively — enough so to make this a full-flavored theatrical meal.

While much of family life has always revolved around shared meals, the tables around which people gather for holidays and special family events are nowadays often in restaurants rather than family kitchens or dining rooms. Thus, The Big Meal's generic restaurant is very much a NOW setting for what's happening to NOW couples — that includes uncoupling as well as coupling and recoupling, dealing with embarrassing and or non-nurturing parents, disappointing children, the loss of jobs as well as of family members.

Much of what makes The Big Meal so intriguing is watching the actors evolve into all the characters within the age group their Man or Woman characters right before out eyes (Man/Woman 1 playing the oldest and Man/Woman 3 the younger generation). Naturally, the shift to different characters and generations calls for an ensemble of gifted, versatile actors and a director to steer them through their multiple roles with utmost clarity. Fortunately, this production has top-drawer talent to handle the required transformations without sacrificing nuance; for example; Nicole and Sam's daughter Mattie introduces them to three different boyfriends in quick succession, all played by Cameron Scoggins' Man #3 with amazing and amusing agility. (Though only the overall Mna/Woman/Boy/Girl are listed in the program, I've included a list with each character handled by each at the end of the production notes).

LeFranc, like another Playwrights Horizon favorite, Annie Baker, has written exactly the kind of play that's director Sam Gold's forte. Like Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, The Big Meal is a play in which nothing much happens, but everything does. It's a narrative that requires high speed timing and yet can accommodate wordless scenes that feel almost painfully endless and pack quite a wallop.

Navigating through some 80 years of high and low points in the lives of one family in just 85 minutes may sound like an attempt to dumb down an epic saga for short-attention span, texting addicts. Not so! By the time you've witnessed this dramatic variation of thumbing through a family album, you'll see that LeFranc's methodology is deceptively obvious and familiar. There's nothing trivial about a play that heightens your awareness that life does indeed fly by and that will have you reflecting about the state of the American family and how many lives two people choosing to become a couple affect. No wonder that when Jenny Sandman reviewed Dan LeFanc's Sixty Miles to Silver Lake in 2009, she said he had vaulted his way onto her Playwrights to Watch list. Too bad Jenny is no longer living in New York to see that he has indeed attained the high visibility spotlight she felt his work warranted.

The Big Meal makes my list of the season's best new plays list. Don't miss it.

Postscript: One of our readers, Mark Avonlee, rightly pointed out The Big Meal's inspirational connection to another Thornton Wilder play in the following e-mail: "I agree with your review of The Big Meal which actually seems inspired not just by Our Town but also by Wilder's earlier one-act play, The Long Christmas Dinner which followed a family through numerous generations sharing their Christmas meal."

That 1931 play is actually also very well known and Wilder, in a letter to Gertrude Hindemith, whose composer husband Paul Hindemith wrote an opera based on the play, commented on the variety of its receptions: "At some performances it has been played to constant laughter; some listeners are deeply moved and shaken by it; some find it cruel and cynical ('What? The dead are forgotten so soon?')"

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc
Directed by Sam Gold.
Cast: David Wilson Barnes (Man 2), Griffin Birney (Boy), Tom Bloom (Man 1), Anita Glllette(Woman 1), Jennifer Mudge (Woman 2) Rachel Resheff (Girl), Cameron Scoggins (Man 3) and Phoebe Strole (Woman 3), Molly Ward (Server
Scenic and costume design: David Zinn
Lighting design: Mark Barton
Sound design: Leah Gelpe
Production Stage Manage: Alaina Taylor Running Time: 85 minutes
Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater 416 West 42nd Street Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater www.PlaywrightsHorizons.orgt
From 3/01/12; opening 3/21/12; closing 4/08/12. -- but extended to 4/29/12
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 & 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 & 7PM, with an additional Monday evening performance on March 19 at 7:30 PM.
Single tickets, $60, , $25 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before showtime to patrons aged 30 and under. Proof of age required. One ticket per person, per purchase. STUDENT RUSH, $15 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before curtain
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/16 press preview

The program only lists the overall role (such as Woman 1, Man 1) -- since the actors morph with such lightning speed into various characters here's a detailed list of roles each actorplays:
Woman 1 (Older Woman): Nicole/ Alice, Sam's Mother
Man 1 (Older Man): Sam/Robert, Sam's father/Jack, Stephanie's father
Woman 2: Nicole / Maddie, Sam & Nicole's daughter/ Jackie, Robbie & Stephanie's daughter
Man 2: Sam/Robbie, Sam & Nicole's son
Woman3 (Young Woman): Nicole/ Jessica, a gentle soul/ Maddie
Sam & Nicole's daughter/ Stephanie, Robbie's wife / Jackie, Robbie & Stephanie's daughter
Man 3 (Yount Man): Sam/Robbie, Sam & Nicole's son. Maddie's adolescent boyfriends (Steven, Marcus, Jeremy, Patrick, Michael)/ Sammy, Maddie's Son
Girl: Pesky Little Girl/ Maddie,Sam & Nicole's daughter/ Jackie, Robbie & Stephanie's daughter
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