People have many different strategies for dealing with the stress of their work, and lunch is often a time for stepping away from the pressure of the workday. Some go it alone by taking a walk or sitting in a park. Others join with a friend and go to different places for lunch. And then there are those who gather in a group, like a team, to surprise each other with some activity or food.
Lunch Bunch by Sarah Einspanier and directed by Tara Ahmadinejad is a rapid-fire comedy with farce ensemble timing in the service of a serious underlying topic, presented on a bare-bones set. It is about a group of overstressed lawyers in a public defender’s office who think they have the perfect antidote for their daily struggles by sharing lunches. It is funny, touching, and worth experiencing the comic talent of the cast and the amazing flow of the story.
This lunch group comprises five core members, each having a day for which they are responsible for providing lunches to the rest of the team. The meals can be anything (well, almost), but they must be gourmet and memorable. The things that the group comes up with are inspired, unusual, and sometimes downright whacky. They are also, in a sense, revealing different aspects of each member’s personality. While the lunches provide a depressurizing element to the psychological stress of their jobs, they also have a competitive edge in delivering the most creative and tasty meal.
The group centers on Jacob (Ugo Chukwu), the longest-serving member of the office team, who came up with the idea for the lunch bunch and takes the meals offered very seriously. Jacob is probably the most tightly wound of all the lawyers in the office. Chukwu’s performance beautifully balances Jacob’s command and control of the lunch group and his unsteadiness, bordering on a nervous breakdown, in dealing with the stresses of the job.
The only hint of a plot is when a new person in the office, Nicole, skillfully portrayed with superb comic timing by Julia Sirna-Frest, tries to join the group as a sub when Tal (Janice Amaya) announces she is going on vacation for two weeks. Although this storyline plays out in the show, it is overshadowed by the ensemble’s rapid-fire dialog and precise timing.
Lunch Bunch is a series of character studies that effectively brings a comedic twist to an environment always on the edge of tragedy. The competition of lunch making provides a shared distraction from the daily struggles faced in dealing with an indifferent court system’s demanding, stressful, and dysfunctional nature.
The entire cast skillfully handle the fast-paced dialog without losing the essential nature of their characters. In addition to those already mentioned, there are Tala Ashe, Louisa Jacobson, Francis Mateo, Jo Mei, and David Greenspan.
The set by Jean Kim is a simple group of rolling office chairs arranged along a fabric-covered wall. They suggest a business office and are choreographed in a way that becomes an extension of the characters’ emotional state, at once, fast and energetic, and later, leisurely and relaxed, and at other moments dark, lonely, withdrawn, with a feeling of defeat. The lighting design by Oona Curley adds solid support for the characters’ actions both with and without their chairs. Alice Tavener’s costume design not only captures the feeling of a business office but also expresses the individuality of each character. Ben Vigus completes this production ensemble with his use of sound in support of the action, except for the one sound used to indicate a change of time.
As much as I enjoyed this show, there are some things that concern me about it. The depiction of some of the work-related moments minimizes the stress experienced by the characters, given the nature of the situations they are dealing with. A stronger narrative of those times will make the comedic elements stronger. Another issue is that in some scenes, the overlapping dialog is uneven in volume, with aspects of the speech being lost. As with the slamming of doors and breaking of things in a farce, an effective vocal balance is essential so that the flow of the drama is not interrupted for audience members.
Lunch Bunch (extended through April 22, 2023)
PlayCo and Clubbed Thumb
122CC, Second Floor Theater, 150 First Avenue at Tenth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, Visit app.arts people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=15
Running time: 55 minutes without an intermission