BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Within the first five minutes of it and possibly sooner, students of the drama will recognize “The Big Meal” as a contemporary variation on Thornton Wilder’s beautiful one-act play, “The Long Christmas Dinner.”
Don’t know it? Written in 1931, this fleeting work swiftly traces the successive lives of several generations of an American family through a series of holiday meals they share across the years.
The similarity in composition and theme between Wilder’s drama and “The Big Meal,” which opened last week at Playwrights Horizons, is striking.
Dan LeFranc’s ultimately touching new play is seamlessly crafted and the piece is charmingly acted by a company of nine actors under Sam Gold’s astute direction. Still, it’d be nice to see Wilder get his due for devising the original recipe.
Wilder’s 35-minute work incidentally observed changes in the greater world and its manners as the characters aged. LeFranc’s 85-minute play concentrates more upon individuals’ personal evolution and how their relationships with others ebb and flow over the passing years.
Designer David Zinn’s artfully nondescript setting represents a restaurant – or rather, a long series of restaurants – where Sam and Nichole first meet and begin dating. Soon they are married, dealing with their kids and in-laws and getting on with their lives.
As they progress into middle age, the couple is portrayed by an older set of actors and when they get into their senior years, a third acting couple (who originally played the in-laws) takes over as Sam and Nichole. By this time, the original actors are portraying the by-now grown up kids.
Every so often a silent waitress arrives with a meal for a character and the flowing action halts as that person eats in real time – and then passes away. Then life resumes for the others.
If this sounds complicated and a bit schematic in print, it all works out smoothly on the stage thanks to the sensitivity of LeFranc’s writing and Gold’s production. Fine performances lend great immediacy to this funny, poignant story. Phoebe Strole possesses a special vibrancy as the young Nichole. Broadway veteran Anita Gillette is radiant in every way as the older women. Tom Bloom’s acting as his doddering Sam gradually slides into senility is both harrowing and affecting.
The ease in which time passes and the characters evolve is so subtle that you hardly notice the changes until they are already there – just as life happens to us all. “The Big Meal” offers a thoughtful serving of universality that all of us will recognize.
“The Big Meal” continues through April 22 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.