Think about how many of life's events take place in restaurants: proposals, arguments, birthdays, breakups, weddings, introductions – the list goes on. There is something about sitting in a restaurant that connects and disconnects us all at the same time. You're sitting across from or next to your dining partner, either fully committed to conversation or completely distracted by people-watching or the TV blaring in the corner, or some combination of both.
If eavesdropping on the myriad slice-of-life conversations going on around you is a favorite habit while you're seated, expectantly waiting for your delicious dinner, The Big Meal (which runs through Aug. 28 at Mad Cow Theatre) will make you feel right at home. It plays to that inner voyeur, making you witness to the tragedy and comedy of family life.
Scenic designer William Elliott created the space to look like a generic "Everyrestaurant," with red chairs and tables and a row of one-sided booths in the back. The eight actors, all of whom play each other at one point or another as the story of the family progresses and generations shift, move the tables and switch chairs to denote a change in time, but never place: Presumably, every scene in the play takes place at the same restaurant. The time, date and geographic location are irrelevant since the subject matter is perennial, applicable since the dawn of the nuclear family.
The play starts when Nicole and Sam, the story's two protagonists and the nucleus of the family, meet in a restaurant where Nicole is a server. As time passes (rather quickly), we're introduced to their children and to Sam's parents – we never meet any of Nicole's family; they're just mentioned in passing. Children grow up and the actors morph from their younger selves to their older selves seamlessly. Theatrical devices like this can fall flat and get crazy confusing, but playwright Dan LeFranc's plot organization is flawless, and in director Mark Edward Smith's interpretation, the story is an easy follow.
The eight actors are divided generationally: Two are children, two are in their late 20s, two in their 40s and two in their 60s. We watch Nicole and Sam as they grow together and grow apart. They, their parents and their kids disconnect and reconnect over and over again throughout the story, each time because of a different life triumph (like their son's engagement) or challenge (like an extramarital relationship).
The actors do well to differentiate each character, and each of them is called upon to portray at least two or three different people throughout the show. The entire cast does this with great success, steering well clear of the cartoonish stereotypes it would be all too easy to fall into and letting the play's text do most of the characterization.
For the most part, the generational pairs work well together, aside from a couple of awkward stage kisses (more ack than aww) and cramped quarters (maybe fewer tables would have given the actors more room to navigate). A high point in The Big Meal's casting is the chemistry between simultaneous soap-opera hunk, silver fox and Shakespeare scholar Peter W. Galman (Man 1) and his older-generation counterpart, Shami J. McCormick (Woman 1), who plays Sam's impossible-not-to-love mother through most of the play. Excellent individual performances are given by both all-work-no-play Steven Lane (Man 2), who portrays middle-aged Sam, and Ginger Lee McDermott (Woman 2), whose neurotic Nicole carries on the younger Nicole's character setup perfectly.
The irony of The Big Meal is that the only actual eating that takes place throughout the play is when a character dies in the story. The "big meal," in this case, is death, and it's symbolically served by a silent Grim Reaper-style server dressed in black, who places a plate of the character's favorite food in front of the deceased (one gingerly eats a salad; another wolfs down a slice of pizza). The audience and cast watch silently as the character devours his or her literal last supper. This works well after the first time it happens, but during the first occurrence, it's not completely clear what's happening, so the audience sat awkwardly in complete quiet until the reveal.
In a play with a ton of great one-liners but very few monologues (after all, when's the last time you could get a full paragraph out around the Thanksgiving table?), one of the best moments of The Big Meal is when Galman, playing Sam's son's fiancee's father, says to the newly engaged couple: "Love is not California." He explains that it storms; it sleets; it hails. "But it makes everything else more beautiful." Mad Cow's production is certainly not California, either – there are a few stormy moments – but what it succeeds in is making life's big events and fleeting moments more beautiful than ever.
Amura Japanese Restaurant
54 W. Church St., 407-316-8500, amura.com
Opens for dinner at 5 p.m.; located in the same building as the theater
Ceviche Tapas Bar
125 W. Church St., 321-281-8140, ceviche.com
Opens for dinner at 4 p.m.; in Church Street Station, across the street and just over the train tracks
78 W. Church St., 407-367-2952, fergsdepot.com
Open until 11 p.m. daily; on the same block and side of the street as the theater
54 W. Church St., 321-800-6912, graffitijunktion.com
Open until 2 a.m. daily; located in the same building as the theater
110 W. Church St., 321-319-0600, hamburgermarys.com
Open until 11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, midnight Thursday-Saturday; on the same side of the street as the theater, just across the tracks; show your ticket and get 15 percent off your check
Kasa Restaurant and Bar
183 S. Orange Ave., 407-985-5272, kasarestaurant.com
Open until 1 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Sunday; just across Orange Avenue at Church Street
17 W. Church St., 407-447-7950,kresrestaurant.com
Opens for dinner at 5 p.m.; across the street from the theater on the same block
The Rusty Spoon
55 W. Church St., 407-401-8811, therustyspoon.com
Opens for dinner at 5 p.m.; directly across the street from the theater
Schumann’s Jager Haus
25 W. Church St., 407-985-1950, schumannsjagerhaus.com
Open until midnight Wednesday-Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 p.m. Sunday; across the street from the theater on the same block
200 S. Orange Ave., 407-293-7777,wahlburgersorlando.com
Open until 10 p.m. daily; on the same block and side of the street as the theater, at the corner of Orange Avenue
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