Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Big Meal: A Large Helping of Time, With a Side of Indigestion

A Big Meal, written by Dan LeFranc, and directed by Sam Gold, offers more about the feeling of time than about the feelings of any characters, and suffers from an overdeveloped sense of profundity. 

Too literal. Too bad.
It is the story of a young couple Sam (Cameron Scoggins) and Nicole (Phoebe Strole) who meet and several moments later are dating, in love, and married.  Verbal smash cuts are the modus operandi of this play and with the turn of a phrase and slight nod of direction and performance we see that time passes between scenes with these characters as they sit in the same seats at a restaurant. 

As time moves along, Sam and Nicole are played closer to middle age by Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes.  Scoggins and Strole suddenly play Robbie and Maddie, the grown children of Sam and Nicole (with Griffin Birney and Rachel Resheff playing Robbie and Maddie as young children).  Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom originally play Sam's parents and later the most senior versions of Sam and Nicole.  The identities of the actors keep changing with age but the story is centered around the life events of Sam and Nicole from dating onward.  

Despite what seems like a complicated tag-team acting game (it's most confusing in the playbill where everyone is listed as Woman or Man) it is very clear at each turn which actor is playing which role.  The play is assisted by Gold's direction and fine performances by the cast.  But as this talented cast rotates through these roles and Gold establishes various moments and scenes from their lives, the play itself fails to develop the characters in any meaningful way.  Sadly the characters remain largely generic creations.  We know Sam and Nicole the longest and the closest I felt to the characters was in fact in their courting scenes, understanding them less and less as time went on. 

I had no problem with the "smash-cut" concept and the rapid transition mid-scene from one place or time to another but I wished between these temporal leaps the characters had had a chance to develop and grow.  What they say ends up so abbreviated and limited that there is little emotional impact.  Arguably LeFranc was not focused on the moment to moment emotion aiming for a larger arc.  But I was given so little I was not invested in the 10,000 foot view of these characters.

There are sudden jolts to the structure to denote major events in their lives and the rapid-fire pace slows to a glacial crawl to indicate this.  I can't help but think of cinematic devices here.  Like a freeze-frame or extreme slow-motion, we feel time stop and that is the most effective emotional device of the show.  The lighting, sound, and action changes to give the audience pause to digest this moment.  But sadly the value of this seems lost when nothing is really vested in the characters.   And the effect starts to lose its power as it is used more often.

Whatever profound things LeFranc thought he was saying seem a little too easily boiled down with these devices.  The overall effect of The Big Meal is like watching a film largely in fast forward (plot point, plot point, plot point) and then pausing a few times (giving over emphasis to those beats).  You might get the basics of the film but it's not emotionally engaging.  It's too bad because I love Gold's direction (and who isn't a Sam Gold fangirl these days) and the cast (Scoggins, Strole, Mudge in particular) seemed to have been able to do a lot with a little but it was just not enough. 

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