Review: Delicious tension served up in SJ Rep’s ‘The Big Meal’

Maddie (Carrie Paff), Robbie (Mark Anderson Philips), Nicole (Catherine MacNeal), and Sam (Richard Farrell) share some much needed laughs in San Jose Repertory Theatre's "The Big Meal." (Photo by Kevin Berne)
Maddie (Carrie Paff), Robbie (Mark Anderson Philips), Nicole (Catherine MacNeal), and Sam (Richard Farrell) share some much needed laughs in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s “The Big Meal.” (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The meal is delivered with sharp precision. There is a napkin, fork and something special on the plate. The meal is brought out by a stoic waitress, who walks upright, and with purpose. She gently sets the meal down in front of the restaurant guest, and leaves, allowing the guest to enjoy their food before getting up and slowly walking out the door.

It is moments like these, that happen at least half a dozen times, that create such splendid tension in Dan LeFranc’s play “The Big Meal” at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

The play begins simply enough. There is mildly flirty interaction between customer Sam (Aaron Wilton) and saucy waitress Nicole (Jessica Lynn Carroll). Their dialogue is sharp, snappy, and eventually leads to torrid, physical passion, and then a marriage that sees beautiful highs and dark lows. Before long, they begin a relationship that spans multiple generations, with the common denominator being this restaurant.

A bevy of colorful family members make appearances throughout. There’s the crass grandfather (Richard Farrell), the meddling grandmother (Catherine MacNeal) and the older versions of Sam and Nicole, Mark Anderson Phillips and Carrie Paff. The elder Sam and Nicole also come in tow with energetic, boundary-challenged children, played by Nicolas Garcia and Sophia Grace Cuthbert.

What director Kirsten Brandt nails is the pace of the show. In the 90-minute play, which has no intermission, there are so many various moments that need a different tone each time. Brandt moves the action along at a brisk pace, which pays off beautifully in these moments where the big meal takes place.

LeFranc’s script certainly encapsulates big moments dotted throughout the show. There are meetings with new boyfriends, major announcements in regards to careers and discovery of the newfound skill of coping with loss. What feels so right about the show is how personal these moments are captured, and certainly different moments will hit the audience personally at varying times.

One example – the play is spot on in regards to taking children to restaurants. Been there and done that. Yes, it is no fun to be “that” family. At some point, the crayons and the color-free menus just ain’t working anymore. And at some point still, a quesadilla in the kitchen is just a hell of a lot easier.

Nina Ball’s restaurant design, a unit set where all the action takes place, is warm and bright, a place that reminds one of the cozy and intimate family restaurant style that allows for these defining family moments, whether joyful or heartbreaking.

The play is not without its faults. In the final third, there is a bit too much convolution happening, and it is tricky to keep track of who exactly is who. Certainly, the tightness of the talented cast contributes mightily to giving the audience the best opportunity to follow everything, yet it still can be tricky to navigate characters in these last 20 minutes or so.

Each member of the cast was unified brightly with Brandt’s direction. Farrell and MacNeal are wonderful elder statesman, with their final scene an absolute stunner, played with gentle and effective pace. Paff, who is always solid, exhibits her ubiquitous range, creating strong connections among the other members of the cast. She and Phillips, who both had ridiculously wide-ranging arcs, found a plethora of honesty and truth in many scenes.

With the warm and gentle humor that comes through the play, there is also a sadness that is steeped in reality. Anyone who is raising or has raised children is reminded daily of how fleeting it all is. Yesterday, my eldest daughter would fall asleep in my arms. Now, at 10-years-old, she is getting too damn heavy.

Just the other day, when I dropped off two of my daughters to their elementary school, I simply watched them walk to their destination. I don’t know why, but I felt the need to take a mental picture. So I did. I just watched them walk with their backpacks, ponytails bouncing along, wearing clothes they will outgrow in what seems like just a few hours. It’s all going too fast for sure.

In the chaos of our family’s daily lives, going out to a restaurant to stop the world for a few moments always feels right. Filling our stomachs and filling our hearts certainly allows us to fill our lives with all kinds of memories that will last a lifetime. This should always be the goal before we pay the check, open the front door, and walk out of the restaurant.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “The Big Meal”
Written by Dan LeFranc
Directed by Kirsten Brandt
The Word: Wonderful, tight cast tells a compelling story about multiple generations who share love and loss in a restaurant.
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Through June 1st
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $29 – $74
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com

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