David Wilson Barnes, Anita Gillette, and
Tom Bloom in The Big Meal
(© Joan Marcus)
David Wilson Barnes, Anita Gillette, and
Tom Bloom in The Big Meal
(© Joan Marcus)
Five generations of a family's history are surveyed in under 90 minutes in Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal, now at Playwrights Horizons. It's a swift, frequently humorous, and occasionally touching work filled with challenges that both director Sam Gold and a nine-member ensemble meet with aplomb.

The play begins as Sam (Cameron Scoggins) amorously eyes and attempts to engage Nicole (Phoebe Strole), a waitress at a restaurant, in conversation. This moment abruptly changes though, when the performers shift tones and demeanor. Suddenly the two are on their first date. The script will continue to leapfrog forward in this manner over the course of several decades, charting the events that stem from a relationship that begins so casually.

In many respects, it's a clever starting point for LeFranc's tale. One can never really know what sort of impact a seemingly minor interaction will have on one's life. For Sam and Nicole, their meeting results in a lifetime together, filled with squabbling, tantrums, and revelations of infidelity, along with genuine good times, most of which are set around gatherings in restaurants, dinner tables, and catering halls (brought to life with elegant simplicity in David Zinn's scenic design, which is cunningly lit by Mark Barnes).

Given the play's scope, it's not surprising that death also figures prominently, and when it arrives, it comes in the form of a silent Server (Molly Ward), who presents a plate of food to the character who is passing away. LeFranc's symbolism certainly has a heavy hand, and yet, audiences will find it difficult to dispute that there are moments when the device proves remarkably effective.

The same can be said for the play's constant bounding through time -- sometimes within a breath. It's an initially effective device that becomes overly calculated and theatergoers will often find themselves waiting for the jump rather than allowing themselves to become involved in the stories at hand.

What impresses most about the production is the clarity of Gold's staging and the specificity that the performers bring to the myriad characters that they play. For instance, Strole and Scoggins, who bring a zestful edginess to the youngest incarnations of Sam and Nicole, easily transform into the couple's kids and grandkids, with Scoggins proving particularly moving as a teen mourning the death of his mother.

Similarly, Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes traverse the bulk of Sam and Nicole's stormy marriage with skill, and then, move to playing their adult children. His work may be finest as Sam lapses into bitter alcoholism, while her achievements hit their pinnacle as she seems to become another human altogether as the couple's free-spirited daughter.

Perhaps most memorable are Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom, whom audiences first meet as Sam's folks. She nails the mother's wonky alcoholic antics with comic flair, and then, proves remarkably touching as Nicole, in her golden years, cares for the ailing Sam, whom Bloom plays with almost heartbreaking detail. Additionally, the actor impressively revels in Sam's father's crassness and morphs easily into Nicole's suavely debonair father.

Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney play the infants and pre-teens of the tale with shrieks, petulance and tenderness, as appropriate, and although weathering some of the kids' behavior may strain theatergoers' patience, it's all part of that journey we all take to our respective "big meal."