Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom in the Playwrights Horizons production of ‘The Big Meal.’ (Joan Marcus)

‘I knew I always wanted to write a play that took place in restaurants,” said Dan LeFranc, whose desire takes shape in his latest drama, “The Big Meal,” which starts a 31 / 2-week run at Studio Theatre on Wednesday. The premise goes back to LeFranc’s parents, who met at a restaurant in Chicago, and the centerpiece of “The Big Meal” is a restaurant table around which five generations of one family gather at various stages in their lives, ostensibly to eat but really to dig into their most intimate issues.

LeFranc has been raking in awards. He’s won the Helen Merrill Award, a Whitfield Cook Award and the 2010 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for his drama “Sixty Miles to Silver Lake.” But in his script for “The Big Meal” he tried something new, marrying language and architecture with a structure that allows plenty of simultaneous speech, or “cross talk,” something he immediately knew would occur throughout the play.

“When I first sat down to figure out how to do it . . . it was pretty evident that [the existing model for representing cross talk] was not going to work with what I had in mind,” LeFranc said. That model, which uses slashes between sentences to denote two characters speaking simultaneously, was too narrow to fit LeFranc’s broader vision. His characters, like real people, were constantly talking over one another.

“That’s how I came up with the idea to use legal-size paper and have eight columns running down it,” he said. “To get the music of the family conversation.”

The result is a play that was written essentially as a graph, with character names on the X-axis and time on the Y. Characters have overlapping dialogue and actors switch roles. Two main characters, Sam and Nicole, start the play as strangers and, in a matter of seconds, get engaged, then marry and have children; the actor playing their son becomes a series of boyfriends for their daughter.

An example of a script by playwright Dan LeFranc. (TWP/TWP)

“It has the cacophonous quality that can occur when you have a real family at dinner,” LeFranc said. “But it’s deliberately structured.”

To get a better picture of how Dan LeFranc wrote his script, we thought it best to include, well, an actual picture. At left, we’ve reprinted a page from “The Big Meal” script, exactly as LeFranc designed it.

    LeFranc describes Sam (Man No. 2) and Nicole (Woman No. 2) as the play’s central couple. When they meet, Nicole couldn’t be less interested in a serious relationship. Her attitude, as LeFranc put it, was: “I don’t want to know anything about you. Let’s just screw around.” But by the time this scene hits, Sam and Nicole are married with children.

    “The play is a lot about the consequences of raising a family, both positive and negative,” LeFranc said. “Three to four minutes ago, in the play, [Sam and Nicole, the main couple] were at a super swanky restaurant, they’d just gotten engaged. They talked about never having kids and how great it would be to hang out and never worry about kids. Then, the next second, they have children.

    “I have so many friends who, when they’re younger, say, ‘I’m never having kids, I’m never getting married, I’m never doing this,’ and then it’s like you blink and they’re, ‘I’m married and I have three kids,’ and I’m like, how did that happen? I feel like the play is an expression of that: how quickly life can change.”

The Big Meal

by Dan LeFranc. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Wednesday through May 20 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.