Friday, April 13, 2012

THEATER: The Big Meal

In Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, Dan LeFranc smoothly glided between seven years worth of tender/awkward trips between a divorced father and his maturing son; in his even more ambitious and absolutely piercing new play, The Big Meal, he shifts across eighty years of dinners, starting with a random pickup between Sam and his waitress, Nicole, and ending with an epically casual goodbye that confronts death as powerfully as anything I've seen on stage since Young Jean-Lee's Lear. He does so with spot-on language as strong as anything from natural contemporaries like Annie Baker, and if some find his characters a bit thin, they're missing the universal appeal of LeFranc's approach. (Our Town, but more so: this could be any one of us, past, present, or future.) Six Feet Under needed five seasons to deliver such a powerful farewell; LeFranc manages it in less than ninety minutes. And don't worry: you won't leave feeling empty, though you might want to bring a bottle of water with which to re-hydrate.

As for Sam Gold, there's simply not enough I can say about this director's ability to stage concept-heavy pieces in a fashion that keeps the emphasis on the characters. Yes, Sam and Nicole are first played by Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins, but when they meet each other again a few years down the road, now played by Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes, it's a seamless transition. There's a haunting echo effect, too, in that when we first meet Sam's parents, as played by Anita Gilette and Tom Bloom, we know that by the play's end, they'll be taking on the roles of Sam and Nicole. We become our parents; our children become us -- and speaking of kids: Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney are charming in all forms, be they hyperactive children, spoiled grandchildren, or docile great-grandchildren.

Even if you absolutely abhor structural works, I strongly recommend The Big Meal. Knowing that the last meal is only just around the corner -- but not for whom -- keeps the stakes (or steaks) almost unbearably tense, and watching life find a way to bloom regardless is an interesting affair. Time flies by, but it's hard to register those changes in ourselves: not so in LeFranc's world, where characters go from hating squalling gibbonous brats to monkeying right along with them, where fractures mend in a tragic instant (or fester in fast-forward), and where memories (of, say, Barcelona) revise themselves in real-time. It's the best thing I've seen out of Playwrights all season (in a banner year of hits!), and must-see theater for anyone with a hearty appetite not just for a slice but for an entire pie of life.

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