Forget the old adage that you are what you eat. In Dan LeFranc's The Big Meal, currently playing at Studio Theatre's 2ndStage, you are how you eat. An irascible, borderline racist character played by Matt Dougherty stabs his steak with a fork, viciously, as if it's a still-mooing animal instead of a long-dead piece of meat. His wife (Annie Houston) stares at her salad for what feels like hours before popping a cherry tomato gracefully into her mouth. And a troubled teenage tearaway (Josh Adams) confronts his hamburger, tearing at it furiously before smearing it all over his shirt and throwing it against a wall.
Like Duncan Macmillan's Lungs, which played at Studio earlier this season in the same space, The Big Meal follows a young couple through their lifetime, jumping from scene to scene at warp speed, with very little in the way of explanation. But while Lungs used procreation as a prism through which to view humanity, LeFranc uses food, and the traditional pastime of the family meal (since this is America, the meal is eaten in a generic Midwestern restaurant rather than a kitchen).
With the exception of Sarah Taurchini, who plays possibly the spookiest server ever to appear with food, the nine actors in the cast jump from character to character, each portraying whoever's their age at any given time. Young couple Sam and Nicole are played first by Josh Adams and Ashley Faye Dillard, then Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews, and finally by Annie Houston and Matt Daugherty, who previously played Sam's parents. Their children are portrayed by young actors Sam O'Brien and Maya Brettell, then by Adams and Dillard. Whichever actor isn't onstage sits quietly on a bench at the back of the sparse set, occasionally reanimating for background noise, or stepping into a new scene.
Having the actors play ages rather than characters is an interesting device--it could be confusing, and occasionally is, but it also enforces the various ideas at play. Eventually, LeFranc seems to suggest, we all become our parents, and then our grandparents, and so on (and that's if we're lucky). Our own personalities and thoughts and dreams are far less meaningful than our ages, our generation, and our roles as children/siblings/parents. Adams goes from playing nice guy Sam to irritating prepster son Robbie to Sam's troubled grandson Sammy; and as different as he is in each role, he's also essentially the same person wearing different personalities, like a hat or a nice piece of jewelry that gets passed down through the generations.
Director Johanna Gruenhut seamlessly choreographs scenes, so tables are pushed together and then removed and actors duck in and out of character by simply putting on a sweater, or a necklace, or a pair of glasses. The focus here isn't so much on food (although when characters do eat, it's usually pretty significant, with Taurchini's black-clad waitress becoming a Grim Reaper-esque harbinger of impending doom). It's on family and on how no matter who you are, putting yourself in a particular role will inevitably define you more than you know. LeFranc has a way with comedy--"We could go places together!" Nikki tells Sam. "Dayton?" he replies--that keeps the action entertaining, even if it ultimately bites off more metaphysical ideas than it can thoroughly chew.
The Big Meal is at Studio Theatre through May 20. Running time is one hour and 25 minutes. Tickets ($30) are available through Studio's website.