AN 80-YEAR DINNER Short, Ruggiero, Kidd, and Carpenter. [Photo by Peter Goldberg]
Zipping along at the speed of changing relationships, The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, is being given an energetic and fascinating production at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre (through February 9).
Director Tyler Dobrowsky (who is also associate artistic director at Trinity Rep) explains in the program notes that the play “repurposes and expands on” Thornton Wilder’s 1930s one-act Long Christmas Dinner, which portrayed a family over the course of 90 years of Christmas conversations around the dinner table.
The action here takes place over 80 years and five generations. By name there are 17 characters, but since the eight actors each play different ones over different ages, you can think of them as 30 people. No wonder there’s a “Character Guide” available to audiences, listing the actors next to their roles — Joe Short plays eight, though five of them are quietly interchangeable boyfriends. A family tree on the guide looks like a police breakdown of gang alliances.
So it’s not surprising that this 90-minute tale of familial folderol could be cut by a third with little loss of storytelling impact and significant improvement in audience attention. That’s not to denigrate the playwright’s ability to keep all this cat-herding reasonably coherent. Yet five generations are one or two more than necessary to convey the similar joys and disappointments of this intergenerational life cycle. After a while, such a story gets repetitious.
We first meet Young Nicole (Amanda Ruggiero) as a waitress in the restaurant where everything takes place. A nervous — “Am I in your way?” — Young Sam (Joe Short) struggles to get her interested in him. Next she is a customer sitting with him, saying she wants them to be casual, that she recently broke up with a narcissistic boor and doesn’t want to get into a relationship. (Their exchanges can be a little confusing at first, until we catch on that shifts in posture are signaling different conversations.) Occasionally there is a skillful ambiguity, such as his happily blurting “I love you” during her jesting conversation, which we could translate simply as “God, you’re funny.” But soon she is leaning lovingly on his shoulder. Hold on — next he is sullen, distant, and she angrily says, “We haven’t talked in a week,” the sudden scene end indicating that they have probably broken up. Beware whiplash.
We next meet them as an older Nicole (Karen Carpenter) and older Sam (Steve Kidd), delight on both their faces as they endure unsuccessful dates with others — they agree to meet later that night, and we sense true love is in the offing. The tryst goes well, we understand, because she says, “You’ve gotten better,” and he replies, “I’ve been practicing.” She disparages marriage, and at their next meeting he offers her a ring, wanting to do so where they first met. Success and lip-lock. To the sound of wailing somewhere in the restaurant, she says she doesn’t like kids — so we know another generation is assured by them. As expected, pubescent Young Robbie (Elliot Peters) and Young Maddie (Emeline Easton) suddenly appear.