‘The Big Meal’ and ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ Play High and Low With Humanity

New Century Theatre Company’s production of Dan LeFranc’s play is a story of the familiar made remarkable. ACT’s take on the French aristocracy is quite the opposite.

There is nothing really remarkable about the characters in The Big Meal. Drawn by playwright Dan LeFranc, they are regular Midwestern folks who fall in love, fall out of love, toil away at their day jobs, laugh, cry, and die. And like most of us, they spend some of the most pivotal moments of their lives in the impersonal environs of diners, bars, and restaurants. This play, currently being produced at 12th Avenue Arts by the New Century Theatre Company, consists entirely of those particular moments, telling the story of a single family over the course of five generations and 50-some meals.

The story begins with the chance encounter of a young customer named Sam and a waitress named Nikki—a classic meet-cute marked by flustered evasion and awkward attempts at connection. The plot evolves quickly and seamlessly from there, taking us through the couple’s first few dates, big plans, and painful break-up in a matter of minutes, followed immediately by another chance meeting between the two, now older and wiser, but still drawn together. Despite some resistance to marriage and family—and the easy comedy that goes with such resistance—Sam and Nikki give in to the inevitabilities of coupling, one by one. Parents arrive on the scene, as do children. And as they do, the set—a bank of tables that looks straight out of a Denny’s—fills with the boisterous life of a young family.

As directed by Makaela Pollock, the action in these early scenes never ceases, the actors exiting and entering on tight cues, eventually abandoning roles and adopting new ones as time passes and the characters age. Conner Neddersen’s young, self-assured Sam, for instance, becomes Darragh Kennan’s cautious middle-aged Sam, while Neddersen re-appears moments later as overachieving teenage son Robbie. Every actor in this generations-spanning cast is charged with playing at least a handful of characters throughout. The potential for confusion always seems to be waiting in the wings, but never appears. Through delicate touches in costuming by Pete Rush and deft, subtle choices by the actors, the play manages its continuity without missing a beat.

By managing this tangled stagecraft, the cast allows the audience to focus on what is important here: the monumental evolutions in each character’s lives and relationships. It is here that this brilliant script finds its heart, doing the difficult work of revealing how we become who we are, showing the heartbreaking, joyful, and dramatic moments found in even the most ordinary lives and the myriad repercussions that follow each of these pivotal moments. We know so little of these people outside of these intermittent meals, and yet there is a sense that we do know them, and when the characters are retired—as we all are—there is a palpable sense of loss.

If The Big Meal is a story of the familiar made remarkable, the current production of Dangerous Liaisons at ACT is quite the opposite.

Set in 18th-century Paris, this story of revenge and humiliation among the pre-Revolution aristocracy is a world away from our reality—though Donald Trump might have you believe that Christopher Hampton’s script was cribbed from the Clinton e-mails. Indeed it is a story made for a modern audience that can’t seem to look away from depravity and delights in the foibles of its most high. Yet those aspects must be delivered with a dose of humanity to make for good theater. That is the challenge facing this production, directed by artistic director John Langs.

At the center of the tale is the Marquise de Merteuil (Kirsten Potter), who in plotting revenge on an ex-lover has drafted a willing accomplice in Vicomte de Valmont (James DeVita). Valmont is a well-heeled brute committed to sexual conquest and, with some figurative prodding from his petitioner, more than happy to manipulate and fell the virtuous in her service. That the entire affair backfires on its dastardly designers is a foregone conclusion to any thinking theatergoer; it is for the reprehensible acts that we watch.

And those acts are indeed reprehensible, especially in our current era when certain underhanded sexual dealings have become more accurately defined as sexual assault. Watching the Vicomte draft a sappy letter to his conquest Madame de Tourvel (Jen Taylor) on the naked back of his mistress Emilie (Keiko Green) is indeed titillating, the scene rife with amusing sexual innuendo as it provides a kind of dangerous thrill for the audience. That’s all fine. But less fine is when Vicomte’s later seduction of the young Cecile (Jasmine Jean Sim), which looks an awful lot like rape, is played for laughs. That it succeeded in eliciting those laughs on a recent night was, frankly, disappointing.

That unfortunate portrayal aside, the production does a fine job with its amoral decadence. Valmont’s contortions in particular are transfixing to watch as he shifts from his role as string-puller to puppet and back again.

And yet something essential is missing from this production (which otherwise manages to get all the details right, especially the wonderful era-specific costuming, done here by Catherine Hunt): namely, the driving romantic tension between Potter and DeVita’s characters, the one thing that has the potential to make this unbelievable plot believable. Without that, the whole affair comes off as heartless, resembling, in the end, a kind of hapless orgy where everyone is just going through the motions. The Big Meal. 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., 253-906-3348. $20–$30. Ends Nov. 19. Dangerous Liaisons. ACT, 700 Union St., 292-7676. $20–$44. Ends Nov. 20.