The Big Meal: Whose Role Is it Anyway?

Strong ensemble plays a game of musical chairs in which everyone loses, leaving this critic with a bad bout of food poisoning

Scroggins and Strolle in The Big Meal

What happened to Playwrights Horizons? Once a bastion of the best and brightest new plays in the New York theater, this noble company has turned into a wobbly showcase for the kind of experimental writing that lives and dies in workshop productions on college campuses in Vermont. Having barely survived a pointless farrago of office politics called Assistance, I have now squirmed my way through The Big Meal, a boring case history of family life as symbolically reflected through three generations of revolting looking menu items that six adults and two children must consume until their plates are empty. The play has been quickly erased from my memory, but the heartburn lingers on.

Four tables with bad tablecloths represent the stages of life in the relationships of three couples whose inconsequential lives and deaths are reduced to years of meetings in the same restaurant, all conveyed in 90 minutes without intermission. The people change, but, unfortunately, the tablecloths do not.

Couple No. 1 meet in the joint where she works as a waitress, fight and break up. A minute later, they’re on a real date, ready for a one-nighter but firmly dedicated to a resistance to commitment. Next, they’re celebrating a wedding anniversary. There’s an hour and 25 minutes left to go. Then the two spoiled brats who were making loud baby noises while the first couple were talking suddenly turn into the obnoxious children of Couple No. 2. Now there are four people yelling at each other at the same time. Then Couple No. 3 arrive. They’re the parents of the father of the two loudmouth kids. The tables separate. The man from Couple No. 2 is approached by the girl in Couple No. 1 and their relationship develops. Sometimes six people are talking at the same time. Then five people are whining and bellowing at the same time. I don’t know. Maybe the first couple is the same as the third couple, with a dozen years between. Maybe they’re all the same person. Maybe they’re all dead. Anyway, before the play mercifully grinds to an end, they will be.

Frankly, considering the bigger picture of life being acted out on stages elsewhere, I can’t imagine anything that matters less. Shifting seats, the characters marry, divorce, suffer, drink too much, bear children and grandchildren and talk incessantly about nothing. The actors switch roles, the old people become young, the young people grow old, and they are all so boring and one-dimensional you spend half of your time trying to figure out who is who and what is what, and the other half of your time looking at your watch. (Fortunately, I have one that lights up in the dark.) Suddenly the entire play stops in its tracks, everyone frozen in their seats, while the grandfather finishes off an entire plate of what seems like mulligan stew, bite by bite, and then drops dead. Tomato sauce plays a big role in The Big Meal, and it is literally as lethal as it looks.   

The plays goes on. The couple from the first scene reappear as the children of the couple in the second scene. Robbie, the screaming child at the beginning, brings in a fiancée named Stephanie, who previously played Robbie’s sister Mattie. The dead grandfather returns as Stephanie’s father, who takes an immediate fancy to Robbie’s grandmother. It’s all so confusing that the audience just sits and stares. This conceit drags on for an hour and a half, with every actor doubling as somebody else. There’s a musical number. People die, others take their seats in the restaurant as their children and parents. The action is interrupted from time to time by a surly, gum-chewing waitress who slams down another plate of ghastly looking food and throws the silverware around. Every character who eats the big meal immediately passes away, making way for another generation. They change chairs, and 10 years have gone by. You know this, because you can feel your hair turning gray.

One hour into the play, the waitress (the only one who never ages) takes away the tablecloths at last, leaving wooden tables in their place. But the same people are still sitting around babbling inane dialogue by Dan LeFranc. They yammer away in overlapping dialogue, like the soundtrack of a Robert Altman movie, about finding out about life, but one thing they never find is a better restaurant. The young girl in the first scene ends up a great grandmother and the young couple in the second scene end up with Alzheimer’s in the last scene, but so what? The play is so fractured and the fragmented vignettes are so brief that you never get to know any of the characters, and you’ve already lost track of all the generations anyway. “Where does it go? Where does the time go?” one character asks. It’s a good question because 90 minutes at The Big Meal is like 90 days of amnesia. The actors are fine, but what is the wonderful musical comedy star Anita Gillette doing playing a grandmother with dementia? The direction is by the overrated Sam Gold, who seems to have a passion about abusing food. In his recent dreary revival of Look Back in Anger, he threw around the stage and splattered the walls with rotting veggies and a tin of what looked like dog poop. This time, his communal meals send you out of The Big Meal desperately in search of an extra-strength Zantac.
The Big Meal: Whose Role Is it Anyway?