Zeitgeist's "Big Meal": Ring of the Nibblings

Shelley Brown, Peter Brown, Ashley Risteen, Arianna Reith, Devon Scalisi, Johnny Quinones, & Becca A. Lewis in "The Big Meal"  (photo: Richard Hall/Silverline Images)

Zeitgeist's current production is “The Big Meal” by Dan LeFranc (now enjoying a bit of a local mini-festival, with his “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake” being presented by Bridge Rep), a fast-paced comedy performed in ninety intermission-less minutes. With eight actors playing twenty-six characters (and one mute actor as a waiter) the play unfolds over fifty years in the life of an extended family and over various restaurant tables. While there's much to digest over the years, it's rare that anyone does more than nibble at actual food in the cyclic center ring of this complex extended family. The play had its world premiere in Chicago in 2011 and played off-Broadway in 2012. It's not the first time an author has attempted a play in such circumstances, as the company's Artistic Director David Miller notes in the program for this production. Thornton Wilder's 1931 one-act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” was also about family and time, covering ninety years in about a half hour over dinner tables, a concept which was borrowed by Orson Welles (self-admitted) for his extended dining scene spanning the years in “Citizen Kane”. Wilder also collaborated on a 1963 operatic version of his play by Paul Hindemith. There was yet another multi-generational comedy covering several evolving characters, “The Dining Room”, in 1982, by A. R. Gurney. In the right hands, this clever, if not particularly original, idea can cover a lot of ground in a brief period.
Fortunately, this time around, the device is used to display the estimable talents of a versatile cast, under the able direction of Miller, including Man # 1 (Peter Brown) and Woman # 1 (Shelley Brown), Man # 2 (Devon Scalisi) and Woman # 2 (Becca A. Lewis), Man # 3 (Johnny Quinones) and Woman # 3 (Ashley Risteen), as well as Boy (Alec Shiman) and Girl (Arianna Reith), and the aforementioned dumb Waiter (Josh Clary). All are completely believable and natural in their varied permutations. Each of them gets her or his “aria”, with standouts including the ditsy airhead daughter-in-law played to perfection by Risteen, the handsome but shallow Sam embodied by Scalisi, and the heartbreaking interplay by the two Browns as one of the grandparents cares for the other who is gradually slipping into dementia. Even Clary as the omnipresent waiter has a chance to interact, playing an important role (not to be disclosed here) in the lifespan of several characters.

LeFranc takes liberties with time and dimensions, as he has done in other work, an approach that's becoming more frequent these days in the arts (the current Broadway play “Constellations”, and the film “Interstellar”, for example). Thanks to Miller's expert direction (and simple Set Design), coupled with the essential Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, apt Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, and minimalist Sound Design by J. Jumbelic, it's an engaging and effective production. One negative aspect, all too frequent in our time, is the physical setup, with half of the audience on either side of the playing area, choirstall-style. As happened in such recent area productions as Huntington Theatre's “Our Town” and SpeakEasy Stage's “Tribes”, a good portion of the audience is unable to see facial expressions for considerable lengths of time, simultaneously annoying and frustrating.

That said, this is an acting and directorial buffet for theatergoers looking for more nutritious playwriting. It's short and bittersweet, perhaps not as filling as it could have been, but still satisfying. LeBlanc's skill at overlapping natural dialogue and half-finished sentences makes one hungry for more from this author. As one character asks rhetorically “Where does the time go...where does it all go?”, we hear the plaintive lyrics to the Niko Case song “(I'm so lonely), I Wish I Was the Moon Tonight”, which sort of serves as a just dessert.

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