The Big Meal takes an unusual look at an everyday phenomenon. Two young people, Sam and Nicole, meet at a restaurant for a drink. As the years pass, they get married, have children, and get old. Suddenly they're responsible for having brought four generations of humanity into the world, with all the attendant joy and misery.
The ingenious and often exhausting part of this Off Broadway production is that each of the eight main actors plays multiple characters within this extended family. Sam and Nicole are first played by the two twentysomething actors (Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins); as they age, their ''essences'' are passed on to Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes, who take the couple through their 30s to 50s; lastly, Anita Gillette and Tom Bloom portray them in their twilight years. When they're not playing Sam and Nicole, the actors shift gears to play their children, their children's children (11-year-old performers Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney), in-laws, etc. It's difficult to keep track, but some of the actors play as many as five different characters in the course of 85 minutes.
Without clear scene changes all the action takes place on a spare set meant to resemble a generic restaurant the constant, rapid shifts in character and time can potentially get confusing. There are no broad Freaky Friday-like physical cues to signify that the woman who's been playing twentysomething Nicole is suddenly playing Nicole's teenage daughter. The play relies on the performances and Dan LeFranc's script to provide the cues, and for the most part, it's a fun, absorbing challenge to figure out who's playing who.
While LeFranc has managed to pull off a difficult gimmick, he hasn't accomplished the more important task of crafting an emotionally resonant story independent of the subtle yet still tricksy theatrical maneuvers. In the second half, tragedy befalls the family as several of the members die from various causes. (To signify death, the actors eat large plates of actual food served by a silent waitress dressed in black. Bloom, who plays two characters who die, deserves recognition for downing two full, unappetizing meals in the course of the play). These moments land with a thud, partly owing to staging constraints: One character suddenly discovers a lump in her breast, and another abruptly decides to go off to a war that will kill him and this all has to happen at a restaurant dinner table.
Generally, LeFranc handles humor better than pathos in the play, as tragedy invariably devolves into melodrama. The excruciating final scenes, centering on Nicole as an elderly widow wistfully looking back on her life, are meant to be poignant, but the dialogue feels cloying and undercooked (''My God, where does the time go? Where does it all go?'') when it matters most. B-
(Tickets: playwrightshorizons.org or 212-279-4200)