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Staff Meal

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - April 28, 2024

Susannah Flood and Greg Keller
Photo by Chelcie Parry
Ever seen a shaggy-dog play? That's a fair description of Staff Meal, Abe Koogler's shape-shifter of a comedy now at Playwrights Horizons. His purpose is hard to pin down, if not impossible. But surely he's writing about the restaurant as a bastion of refuge, a peaceful retreat in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable universe. Staff Meal has its warm and funny moments. And a lot of unintelligibility surrounding them.

The confusion begins with the fact that while most characters have names, few of those names are ever spoken. Ben (Greg Keller) and Mina (Susannah Flood), for instance, never refer to each other by name–I had to refer to the program. They're office co-workers, tapping away on their laptops on Jian Jung's bleached-white set, limiting their conversation mainly to "Hey!," while a news crawl above stage left punctuates the short scenes with "The next day..." The next day..." Which serves to disarm us and anticipate a low-key romcom.

Which is what we get, for a while. Aside from a hideous vagrant in black-and-white rags lurking about the house and making random appearances and disappearances (Erin Markey), which may be a metaphor, we just watch Ben and Mina expand their conversation beyond "Hey!" and expose their utter ordinariness–save for Ben, as homespun-American as they come, claiming to be from Sevilla. Their not-riveting dialogue runs to dogs and coffee and bland pleasantries on the order of "Do you like to walk on beautiful days?" "I think so." Are you riveted yet?

Soon enough they're dining together, as Jung's set turns into our restaurant; she likes to move walls around, which may be a metaphor. Ben has a several-pages fantasy about the Titanic, which may be a past-life memory, and Mina thought she had a past-life memory until she recognized it as a scene from Ratatouille. This isn't the swiftest couple.

They're served by a waiter (Hampton Fluker, quite appealing), who fills us in on some restaurant particulars: its owner is mysterious; its chef, Christina (Markey), is moody but matronly; there are also two servers (Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy) who lack personality. Our nameless waiter has looked increasingly on the restaurant as home, though it's curiously laid out. The wine cellar is several stories underground–so far down that the earth is shifting around it–and completely disorganized, so finding a particular bottle can take hours. But this is a cozy and popular establishment, and there is, in fact, a staff meal, a regular event where Christina prepares scrumptious duck and mashed root and cherries that all look like brussels sprouts. Which may be a metaphor.

I was getting impatient with the randomness and seeming purposelessness of the scenes, but Stephanie Berry comes along and livens things up in a capacity that can't be revealed but generates a lot of laughter and good will. Then it's back to the randomness: The employees love working there because a restaurant makes people happy. Some metaphysical curiosities: Is the vagrant really the owner, and also the chef? More blathering from the vagrant. And a more ominous environment outside. Is Staff Meal an apocalyptic warning? Masha Tsimring's lighting is turning an ominous red, Tei Blow's sound design is evoking wind and waves. And Ben and Mina have given up on ever seeing their long-absent waiter again, retreating to a menacing streetscape where nothing's open, everything's still, and the ground is separating them as it cracks open. Meantime, back at the restaurant, Christina's serving the waiter a wonderful last meal, a testament to the eatery's enduring status as a place of comfort and welcome, and that's that.

I liked Abe Koogler's previous play, Fulfillment Center, which, among other qualities, had a beginning, a middle, and an end. He's trying something more adventurous here, a series of disparate elements that interlock only if you mentally force them together, and maybe not even then. It may sound like old-fart kvetching, but as young playwrights keep attempting to stretch the form, is it not possible they'll retreat down many blind alleyways? Staff Meal keeps endeavoring to keep us off balance, and succeeds all too well. The cast is fine, with Keller and Flood an endearing central couple and Barbagallo and Herlihy injecting whatever personality they can into their underwritten and perhaps extraneous roles. Berry's a particular hoot. And Morgan Green's direction, with its shifting rhythms and visual surprises, keeps us reasonably interested, even as we're totally confused.

Says Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Adam Greenfield in the press release, "Staff Meal scares me, in that it's unlike any other play I know, and I'm dying to know what will happen when this existential comedy meets an audience." This audience appeared to enjoy a lot of it, while this critic found it a little more convinced of its own cleverness than I was. Playwrights has trafficked a lot in recent seasons in quirky, baffling little comedies, things like Regretfully, So the Birds Are and the unlamented The Trees, and let's add this one to that list. It has its diversions, and it may well trigger conversation on your way home. But much of that conversation may be on the order of, "What the heck did we just see?"

Staff Meal
Through May 19, 2024
Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
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