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A Family Dinner

The Big Meal is funny and poignant, and in the end . . .

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" . . . life

first oppresses

and then soothes

as fancy takes it;

poverty

and power

it melts them like ice." —"O Fortuna"

The other day I saw video of a chorus ambushing shoppers. As part of a program called Random Acts of Culture, 29 members of Seraphic Fire converged on an indoor plaza at a Miami mall and, without preamble, started performing "O Fortuna!" from Carl Orff's song cycle Carmina Burana. I teared up as I watched.

Now, the music was certainly beautiful and the singing was accomplished, but those facts in and of themselves don't account for me weeping into my keyboard. What got me was how the musicians transformed the scene at the mall—or, maybe more accurately, how they brought out what always lay hidden inside it. Singers in street clothes, percussionists pounding tympani on the balcony, shoppers gone silent and attentive as a medieval Latin poem about fate echoed across Bebe and Burberry storefronts—suddenly the plaza was shot through with the knowledge of life and death. I'm tempted to quote Yeats's line about a terrible beauty being born. But it's more like a terrible beauty was rediscovered.

At its best moments, which are frequent, the American Theater Company's world premiere production of Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal offers a similar sense of rediscovery.

Twentysomething Nicole is a rotten waitress, but Sam clearly doesn't care. He woos her despite her goth surliness, and his sweet, chivalrous deference makes an impression. They start dating on her condition that they remain "as anonymous as possible" to each other, never discussing their lives or backgrounds. Naturally, the short scenes that follow show them violating that condition like crazy. Life sneaks in, not to mention love. Young Sam and Nicole get close, closer, closest, and then fall apart. They meet again years later, marry, have children, and grow older. There are more births, some deaths, lots of alienation (but only a limited amount of reassurance), too much drinking, and frequent meals.

And that's pretty much it. The piece has no plot as such—it's less a play than a 75-minute illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The interest is in watching one family's cells multiply, divide, mutate, and fade through multiple generations. When will daughter Maddy settle down? Is middle-aged Sam poised to cheat? What will become of little Sam, Nicole and Sam's obnoxious grandson?

An obvious precedent for The Big Meal is Jan de Hartog's 1951 play, The Fourposter, which follows a couple from their wedding night through the entirety of a long marriage. But, especially as directed here by Dexter Bullard, LeFranc's play bears a much stronger resemblance to Our Town, Thornton Wilder's 1938 masterpiece about life in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, at the beginning of the 20th century. LeFranc and Bullard use metatheatrical devices that echo Wilder: tables and chairs are set up and taken away by stagehands in plain view of the audience; cast members play multiple roles and remain visible when they aren't performing; time is treated as a fluid, mutable thing. Like Wilder, also, LeFranc honors the centrality of food in family life: people spend a lot of time eating in both plays, and The Big Meal turns that communal time into a core motif.

But the most important similarity is a shared breadth of vision. Though they portray it differently, neither Our Town nor The Big Meal stops short of death. LeFranc and Bullard follow their characters all the way through to the end of the knowable. We see members of the Sam-and-Nicole family retire from life as we might see them pull away from a meal. This, together with vivid performances by the entire ensemble, gives the piece a somber resonance despite all its great humor. A terrible beauty, indeed.

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