In new Off-Broadway play ‘Big Meal,’ the pregnant teen from ‘30 Rock’ steals the show

Cameron Scroggins and Phoebe Strole, of 'Cobwebs of Rainbows' fame. (Joan Marcus)
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The opening scene of The Big Meal is so fresh, it leaves the audience hungry for more. But by the end, this off-Broadway play has gone bad.

The main dramatic conceit is simple yet quite effective for a while: Four pairs of actors—two kids, two twenty-somethings, two forty-somethings, and two senior citizens—play rotating familial roles over the course of several decades, switching parts as the characters age. So the twenty-something Sam and Nicky who meet in that wonderful first scene, consisting of brief snippets from a long series of dates spliced seamlessly together into a single mega-date that spans years in a matter of minutes, soon become forty-something Sam and Nicky with little kids and aging parents; a while later they’re being played by the seniors, their kids are young adults, they’ve got grandkids, and so on.

This round robin charms at first, especially since the early scenes are directed at a rapid clip by Sam Gold and played with casual sarcasm by Cameron Scoggins and Phoebe Strole. But this exhausting pace can’t last the whole evening—it’d be like watching a flip-book for 90 minutes—and once The Big Meal slows down, it loses its distinctiveness. The humor too often turns maudlin, the characters grow increasingly two-dimensional, and the script loses its originality. What starts off as a unique and quirky comedy about relationships turns into a family drama that feels disappointingly generic: couples get married quickly but rarely happily, kids grow up and torture their parents, parents get old and disappoint their kids, and along the way everyone does a lot of drinking and arguing as they all creep toward the grave.

A second dramatic conceit is the only remaining distinctive feature in Dan LeFranc’s play, and this one isn’t nearly as effective. The entire play is set inside an unnamed restaurant, where the scenes unfold around shifting tables, but no meals are actually served—except to people who are about to die: A waitress wordlessly brings a single plate out to the unlucky character, who then slowly eats a meal under a spotlight while the rest of the cast sits frozen in dark silence, their noisy conversation interrupted for entire minutes. The first time this device is used, it’s somewhat intriguing—the waitress as grim reaper, the unfortunate souls getting their final meals like felons on death row. But by the second time, it’s already overkill, and by the third or fourth or fifth time, it’s simply tedious.

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The actors do their best to inject some humanity into the characters, even as they’re constantly shifting roles and passing them off to the next generation. The women (including frequent "30 Rock" guest Anita Gillette, and Jennifer Mudge) are more successful than the men, because their characters are more complex. The strongest is the twenty-something Strole. ("30 Rock" fans will remember her guest appearance as a pregnant teenager singing a horrible song called “Cobweb of Rainbows.”) She brings depth to each of her characters and makes them distinct from one another, even those who get just a couple of lines in passing, and she’s a key reason that the opening scene, when young Nicky meets young Sam, works so well.

If only that early momentum could last. But all too soon, you’ll be calling for that grim reaper of a waitress to bring you the check, or your own final meal, or whatever it takes to get off this merry-go-round.

The Big Meal is showing at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $60. Call 212-279-4200.