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Seasoning needed for ‘The Big Meal’

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The last thing you’d ever want, in the forlornly sterile restaurant where the events of Studio Theatre’s “The Big Meal” transpire, is for the waitress actually to arrive with your order. The special reason — one having nothing to do with food quality — becomes mournfully apparent as the metaphor-obsessed playwright Dan LeFranc transforms the rhythms of dining out into a warp-speed demonstration of the life cycle of an American family.

Before our eyes, a young couple on their first date turn into the middle-aged parents of tweeners run amok and then into the tentative, forgetful grandparents of a burgeoning brood. Four matched pairs of actors and actresses board LeFranc’s gustatory ark to hand off roles and portray family members at appropriate ages, revealing at a breakneck pace the kinds of conflicts and misfortunes to which any spectator will relate.

The concept is clever, though the most intense feeling I could muster for “The Big Meal” was a mild appreciation for the technical victory in traffic-copping this 80-minute onrush of life’s ups and downs. Once the playwright sets down the rules — and “The Big Meal” does indeed unfold as if it were a game — you’re pretty clear where this is all headed: The meet-cute first date. The unruliness accompanying a need for children’s menus. The dinner at which a mom notices a lump in her side. The disoriented old man who needs to be coaxed into taking a bite. You could no doubt customize a version of “The Big Meal” to your own experiential recipe.

Maybe that’s the point of the play, presented as part of Studio’s 2ndStage program, whose last production was the exuberantly imaginative “Astro Boy and the God of Comics”: You’re meant to catch glimpses of what we’ve all known and undergone in the dim-sum intermingling of small joys and big calamities. But the novelty of how these moments are related is not reflected in any corresponding dynamism in the characters. In director Johanna Gruenhut’s blandly well-oiled production, too many remain rather faceless.

Some of the same topical terrain was covered at Studio earlier this season, in playwright Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” a world premiere that followed the ambivalent progress of a young couple as they contemplated having a child and moving through life. The opening of “The Big Meal” introduces us in similar fashion to two vigorous, nervous young adults who are destined to be central figures in the play, portrayed here by the appealing Josh Adams and Ashley Faye Dillard.

LeFranc’s dialogue, however, is engaged in the more mechanical business of drawing character outlines than of coloring them in evocatively. The emotional transactions of “The Big Meal” are communicated, it seems, through the speed of the line delivery. As a result, much of the play seems enveloped in anxiety — it’s a wonder that these diners don’t walk away with indigestion.

The only rhythmic change-up that Gruenhut allows occurs each time the silent waitress (Sarah Taurchini) marches solemnly onto the stage and presents some unfortunate character with his or her last supper. (No, they’re not poisoned.) A lengthy interlude ensues in which the character, framed in hot light, serenely or ferociously chews and walks to an upstage banquette.

The most effective of these culinary departures occurs — as my seatmate astutely noted — in the account of the fatal choice made by a troubled family member who decides to purge through military service his pent-up anger over his absent father. The burger he’s been served spills all over the floor: a messy end, indeed.

The story unfolds on set designer Timothy R. Mackabee’s utilitarian mock-up of one of those undifferentiated establishments with polished wood floors and ceiling fans: life as seen from the inside of an Applebee’s. In costume designer Adriana Diaz’s everyday clothes, actors await their cues on the banquette or at back tables. The performers meet the challenge most entertainingly when the fast-forward narrative style requires the most nimble gear-shifting. This works particularly well as Dillard’s young Nicole introduces to her parents (the capable Chris Genebach and Hyla Matthews) a series of boyfriends, all played in whirlwind succession by Adams.

The aging process is illustrated as each older pair of actors assumes identities previously established by younger ones. As new generations are introduced, the task of remembering who is who gets trickier — at times, more confusing than is useful.

“We really started something!” muses dear old fading great-granny (Annie Houston), as the play flickers to a close. Such loving optimism might be the type of harmless solipsism we should all aspire to at the end of life. With regard to precisely what that something is, I just wish “The Big Meal” had been more filling.

The Big Meal

by Dan LeFranc. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Lighting, John Burkland; sound and original music, Elisheba Ittoop; dramaturge, Lauren Halvorsen; assistant director, Brian Crane. With Matt Dougherty, Maya Brettell, Sam O’Brien. About 80 minutes. Through May 20 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

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