Review: Artists Rep's "The Big Meal"

Dámaso Rodriguez's first show as ART's artistic director, a saga of five generations in one archetypal American family, bites off more than it can chew.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg September 19, 2013

Scott Lowell and Val Landrum

Image: Owen Carey

For the first production of his first season as Artists Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez has selected Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal. It's a simultaneously safe and ambitious choice. On one hand, LeFranc's 2011 play takes place almost entirely in a generic restaurant (no set changes) and calls for a small cast (each member plays multiple roles). On the other, The Big Meal attempts to chronicle five generations of an archetypal American family through births, marriages, and deaths—in one act. It's a tall order.

LeFranc, more than Rodriguez, falls short. His dialogue is realistic and funny, and his device for showing death is creative and moving (you'll never look at waiters the same). But the playwright's script tries to cover so much ground that it ends up not being able to give the major, majorly complex life events it portrays the deep, truthful kind of treatment they demand—and which theater is supposed to provide. Instead, as the plot races across decades, such rich experiences as falling in love (and falling out of it) unfold hurriedly, almost perfunctorily, and wind up feeling canned as a result.

Also problematic is the family at the center of LeFranc's story. This American family is meant to be ordinary enough to stand in for the American Family, but, amusing quirks aside (the matriarch claims to have invented the Cadillac Margarita), they are so white-bread as to be unrepresentative, marrying, having kids, and dying like characters on some laugh-tracked family sitcom. If American families were ever this vanilla, they certainly aren't now, and we hardly need more Full House depictions of them as such.

Artists Rep's staging of LeFranc's play is not without its own flaws. Because each actor plays numerous roles, it can sometimes be unclear whom they're supposed to be, and there aren't nearly enough costume changes and other clues to help viewers avoid the confusion. That said, the multi-role performances themselves are solid, with ART old-timers such as recently departed artistic director Allen Nause and cofounder Vana O'Brien well cast as the family's slightly racist grandpa and slightly alcoholic granny. Interestingly, perhaps the most natural performances come from the show's two child actors, Harper Lea and Agatha Olson, both of whom previously appeared in Artists Rep's The Lost Boy.

The Big Meal 
Thru Oct 6 
Artists Repertory Theatre 
At this “big meal,” the company is entertaining and the service snappy. For some diners, certain courses will hit the spot, resonating like comfort food. Ultimately, however, the repast fails to capture the bittersweet complexity of family life in America today.

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