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Theater Review: "The Big Meal" at Studio Theatre

In this sharply funny new drama, sitting down to eat gets old, literally.

Matt Dougherty, Sam O’Brien, Hyla Matthews, Chris Genebach, and Maya Brettell in The Big Meal. Photograph by Carol Pratt.

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.

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
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.

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