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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
The less authentic it looks, the more authentic it feels.
That's not a Zen riddle: It's what Dan LeFranc learned about his play The Big Meal, now at Playwrights Horizons.
Superficially, the play sounds realistic: An extended family gathers for a series of meals throughout their lives, and between courses, they grapple with birth, death, and marriage.
But there's magic in the way the story's told.
Take the couple Sam and Nicole: When we meet them, they're flirting at a restaurant, and they're played by twentysomething actors Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scroggins. For a while, the scene feels like a traditional romantic comedy, but then---bang---Nicole jumps to their second date in the middle of a sentence. Time shifts, and suddenly, we're in a new scene.
Soon, Sam and Nicole are married, and they're at a restaurant with their kids. Only now, Sam and Nicole are played by thirtysomething actors Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes.
That's how it goes for the entire show: As characters age, older actors play them, and younger actors eventually play the children of characters they played in earlier scenes. The conceit suggests we all become our parents and we all leave pieces of ourselves in our children. Life stops momentarily when we die, but then, somehow, the dead get resurrected in later generations.
LeFranc has been refining that vision for several years, and at this point, the play is remarkably lean. Actors barely change costumes, they use only a few props, and the sets and lighting are subtle suggestions, not literal interpretations.
"It's very much a language play," LeFranc says. "If you put too much scenography around the language, the play just flattens and becomes less interesting."
He learned that lesson from experience, including a production in Chicago last year. "In Chicago, we had more things in the play, we had a few more objects," he says. "We had this run through, and we looked at it and said, 'The play can't have anything. We need to get rid of everything except for a few glasses and tables and chairs.'"
There was even more pruning at Playwrights Horizons. LeFranc explains, "There's a section of the play where the back wall comes downstage and creates a very different look. This banquette comes in. There are tables. And it was really interesting during previews because it made us say, 'Why is this part of the play feeling a little flat or a little strange?'"
Eventually, LeFranc and his collaborators realized the show felt "stuck" in a restaurant. "You can't be thinking that everything's happening right here in this place, and it's really interesting how that specificity [of place] did a disservice to the play," he says.
Now, lighting suggests the general idea of a restaurant, and for LeFranc, this gives the show more power.
But why? Why does the play seem more honest when the environment on stage is just a sketch? "At certain parts of the play, you have to let your imagination leave a restaurant," the playwright plays. "It just doesn’t work if your imagination is not allowed to wander. Too many objects suffocate the imagination."
A few days later, LeFranc follows this comment by emailing a quote from Thornton Wilder, whose play The Long Christmas Dinner influenced The Big Meal.
In the introduction to his collection Three Plays, Wilder writes, "When you emphasize place in the theatre, you drag down and limit and harness time to it. You thrust the action back into past time, whereas it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always 'now' there. Under such production methods, the characters are all dead before the action starts. You don’t have to pay deeply from your heart’s participation. No great age in the theatre ever attempted to capture the audience’s belief through this kind of specification and localization. I became dissatisfied with the theatre because I was unable to lend credence to such childish attempts to be 'real.'"
Wilder, then, is like one more family member in The Big Meal, passing ideas forward into new bodies so they repeat and repeat and stay alive.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of "The Big Meal" cast by Joan Marcus