Time passes quickly in "The Big Meal."

It isn't just the brief running time -- 90 minutes, with no intermission -- of Dan LeFranc's brisk and often beguiling comic drama, which made its Bay Area premiere Wednesday at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

It's also the way LeFranc telescopes the experiences of love and loss, youth and old age, hope and disillusionment in the fast-paced, ever-changing lives of his characters.

Food plays a key role in this story of four generations, whose most significant episodes all seem to occur at family gatherings in a local restaurant. Corn dogs, enchiladas, calamari and a recurring reference to nachos punctuate the playwright's accelerated quick-change scenes as the years march on.

KEVIN BERNE/SAN JOSE REPERTORY THEATREFrom left, Sophia Grace Cuthbert, Carrie Paff, Nicolas Garcia and Mark Anderson Phillips star in "The Big
KEVIN BERNE/SAN JOSE REPERTORY THEATRE From left, Sophia Grace Cuthbert, Carrie Paff, Nicolas Garcia and Mark Anderson Phillips star in "The Big Meal," a family story depicted in scenes at a restaurant, now playing at San Jose Repertory Theatre. ( sjr )

Vibrantly staged by Kristen Brandt, San Jose Rep's associate artistic director, the family dynamic proceeds at a dizzying pace. With eight actors, each playing multiple roles, the story unfolds in short, staccato bursts, beginning with the meeting of Nicole (initially played by Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Sam (Aaron Wilton.) She's a waitress, he's a customer, and there's an instant attraction, although she makes it clear that she's not all that interested in a relationship.

A minute later, they're meeting again, this time on a date, and Nicole still wants their hookup to be "as anonymous as possible." In successive scenes, though, they're making out, moving in, and breaking up -- all within a few minutes.


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Fast forward a few years, to another chance encounter between Sam (now Mark Anderson Phillips) and Nicole (now Carrie Paff.) They're both in the same restaurant, on dates with other people, but the chemistry's still there. Next thing you know, they're married with kids (Sophia Grace Cuthbert as Maddie, Nicolas Garcia as Robert), whose grandparents (Richard Farrell and Catherine MacNeal) already seem over the hill.

The actors exchange roles as quickly as the scenes change. Blink again, and Sam and Nicole (now played, respectively, by Farrell and MacNeal) have become the older generation. Their children, Maddie (Carroll) and Robert (Anderson) have kids of their own (played by Aaron Wilton and Paff), and the scenes that follow bring major milestones -- births and weddings, affairs and breakups, illnesses and accomplishments. Sibling rivalries surface; long-simmering resentments flare up. Death inevitably comes to dinner, lending new meaning to "last supper" in Brandt's imaginative staging.

LeFranc isn't the first playwright to portray life at an accelerated pace; Thornton Wilder's "Long Christmas Dinner," which Berkeley's Aurora Theatre produced a few seasons back, depicted a family's evolution over a decades-long span. But LeFranc proves adept at observing contemporary sources of discord, as well as the subtle ties that keep a family bonded. He also has an ear for the way families actually communicate; the dialogue, fast-paced and hilarious in the early scenes, gradually yields to a more poignant, even elegiac tone.

Brandt directs the action with clarity and relentless momentum. Life revolves around the family meals, and Nina Ball's restaurant set, a sleek assemblage of warm woods, leatherette booths, pendant lamps and glass doors for entrances and exits, serves the production handsomely. Soft lighting by Kurt Landisman, percolating sound design by Jeff Mockus, and character-appropriate costumes by Shannon Sigman help delineate the passage of time and emotional shifts.

Those emotional changes, and the constant handing off of roles, keep the uniformly excellent cast fully engaged. Even in the most densely populated scenes -- a goofy parade of Maddie's boyfriends, for example, all played with flair by Wilton -- the characters emerge in distinct, dimensional performances. In spots, the hyperactive quality of "The Big Meal" starts to feel a little thin. But the actors are so good, you can't help liking them in real time.

'THE BIG MEAL'

By Dan LeFranc, presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre

Through: June 1
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose
Tickets: $29-$74, half price for ages 30 and under; 408-367-7255, www.SJRep.com