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Staff Meal

What begins as an innocent take on a contemporary romcom descends into a chilling apocalypse for the staff and patrons of a niche restaurant.

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Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy in a scene from Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal” at Playwrights Horizons (Photo credit: Chelcie Parry)

[avatar user=”Tony Marinelli” size=”96″ align=”left”] Tony Marinelli, Critic[/avatar]

Imagine you’re minding your own business watching a play and then you become aware of a disgruntled fellow playgoer murmuring about something that bothers them, and that something isn’t how much they were charged for their chai latte right before the show…they are sharing commentary about what you are both watching. That fellow playgoer isn’t talking to someone who came with them…if this is normal behavior for said disgruntled fellow playgoer, they have probably run out of usual suspects that will attend theater with them. They are saying what they are saying for the benefit of anyone that will listen. And as you start to listen to the commentary, that is while you are still trying to pay attention to what is occurring on stage, you realize you just might be in agreement with said Looney Tune who is now making their way to the stage.

This is one of the roads you take in Abe Koogler’s utterly surreal yet immensely intriguing Staff Meal. The opening scenes could very well be the preface to a romcom…until they’re not. We meet two freelancers glued to their respective laptops and adjacent café tables in what could be a Starbucks somewhere. As they meet each other’s glance, they acknowledge each other with a requisite “Hey” but no further attempt at otherwise awkward conversation.

Koogler began writing Staff Meal in January 2020 and completed the first draft in April 2020…well, he certainly had time on his hands, but so did a lot of people. It’s a wonder we didn’t have a great outpouring of “the great American novels” during Covid, or at least as we were being released from our lockdowns so we’d have something to read as we made our way back into the subway. What is striking about Staff Meal is that we begin with what passes for so much normalcy – two people begin conversation, even if it’s minimal Millennial-bleats, and graduate towards commiserating about the coffee in this particular café finally leading up to finding lunch somewhere…but this won’t be a quick run into a (low-end) McDonald’s or (slightly better than low end) Pret a Manger…this will be a foray into Ruth Reichl territory. They land in a high-end perhaps Michelin-starred restaurant where the staff gathers to eat gourmet cuisine before the dinner crowd comes in.

Erin Markey (foreground), Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy (background)  in a scene from Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal” at Playwrights Horizons (Photo credit: Chelcie Parry)

The two most senior waiters ooh and aah over the food as they indoctrinate the newbie waiter on his first day. They gush over how lucky they all are to serve at this particular establishment run by a supreme chef-God, as if even Alain Ducasse would bow down to His Majesty, if His Majesty would deign to make an appearance. While this is going on inside, something completely dreadful has started outside. When the two millennials give up on the food that never materializes (their waiter got very lost in the subterranean wine cellar), they make their way to the street as the city becomes devoid of all taxis, buses, noise, and people.

It shouldn’t be this dark but even the sun went home to shelter-in-place. Holding hands so they don’t lose each other in the darkness proves to be a challenge for our hero and heroine. A sudden apocalypse is a lot to process for anyone, but does any audience member remember what these two did with their laptops before they went out to lunch? In an early café scene Mina, that is her name, (and Ben is his name although they are never identified as such in the play), entrusted a member of the audience to watch her laptop when she went to the ladies’ room, and reentered just as a Vagrant was about to run off with it. So much for asking an audience member to take some responsibility.

This is very much an ensemble piece, yet interaction is something that looks and sounds odd here. The surroundings are barren and stark, so we are forced to listen. Mina and Ben would have probably not even looked up from their laptops if their work wasn’t mind-numbing. Their attempts at conversation are inane, sometimes calling to mind the married couple on the train not recognizing each other in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, but once they get rolling…Ben has a tale of connection to the Titanic, meaning in a past life he found himself looking directly at a porthole as his ship was capsizing. It could have been the Titanic and this life now is another incarnation, but it could also have been a boat in a completely different era. Mina one-ups him with her “confessing” she was a character in Moby Dick. They also talk about growing up with dogs: Mina’s tale is straightforward in that Mina threw a ball and the dog fetched. Ben’s is disturbing in that his parents were animal abusers. They were gradually starving Ben’s dog to death. They went so far as to reward Ben’s siblings if they tattled on Ben if/when he tried to sneak the dog some of his own food.

Stephanie Berry in a scene from Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal” at Playwrights Horizons (Photo credit: Chelcie Parry)

The conversation of the restaurant’s servers is about food and their “acts of service” in relation to the customers. The restaurant owner/master chef has written two books, Acts of Service and Flights of Fancy, which are constantly referenced in their conversations. The newbie waiter has read Acts of Service, but not its companion piece. The more he “drinks the KoolAid,” the more he will get to be spouting out this knowledge just as his colleagues do. This is so utterly unlike most waiter/server downtime conversation. In New York, it’s usually about the next audition. (To the point, a comedian years ago mentioned trying to get his waiter’s attention to refill the water glasses at the table. He waved his napkin and shouted, “Oh, Actorrrrrr!”)

As we spend a lot of time with Mina and Ben, the direction of their conversation becomes intentionally tiresome. When Ben asks her if she enjoys going out to restaurants, she gleefully responds, “I do!,” then the litany of why she doesn’t…”I mean no not really, it’s often hard to hear, and the food is often overpriced, and I often feel disappointed, and a big part of me honestly wishes we were just at someone’s house being hosted warmly by someone who was making us all different kinds of food and there was sort of a fire and wine was passed around to the sound of laughter…” Ben’s conversation is mostly bleak: his growing up living in a castle in Spain that was never warm as the parents did not want to pay for what it would cost to heat it just gnarls the whole allure of living in a castle in Spain, doesn’t it?  Susannah Flood and Greg Keller do tireless justice to these millennials you just want to smack. Their scene after they leave the restaurant though is quite chilling. Sensibly they cling to each other as each really is all the other has at that moment yet the deepening darkness and a force we can’t see pulls them further and further away from each other into the abyss.

Erin Markey has the juicy tasks of playing the creepy Vagrant as well as the chef Christina, whose lack of patience with the naiveté of the newbie waiter played sublimely by Hampton Fluker can be described as the antithesis of welcoming. A later scene for the two conjures up an opportunity to delve into a key theme of the play: people needing connection. The waiter at first sighting of the Vagrant is keen on just getting him/her/they out of the restaurant but his humanity takes over as he offers to find food in the kitchen if the Vagrant meets him at the back door. The Vagrant transforms into Christina who then offers to prepare the Waiter his last staff meal before the restaurant closes for good. Both actors make this a haunting tableau.

Susannah Flood and Greg Keller in a scene from Abe Koogler’s “Staff Meal” at Playwrights Horizons (Photo credit: Chelcie Parry)

Servers 1 and 2, fawning over all things-Gary Robinson (the restaurant’s owner), are given great performances by Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy, more sycophantic Stepford wives than the last two members of the Jonestown cult. Stephanie Berry has our attention as the audience member wo interrupts the play and ironically also propels us into the theme of connection once again. A widow, she goes to the theater for something to do and, of course, the inherent stimulation, but tongue-in-cheek draws attention to the fact that sitting in an audience with a bunch of strangers isn’t the same as having a cup of joe and conversation with someone. Her monologue is poignant and eye-opening all at the same time.

Director Morgan Green creates magic from scene to scene, whether they are linear or not, dream logic or that of frightening nightmares. It is a great leader that takes us on a ride such as this so willingly…through the naturalism of the meet-cute of Mina and Ben to the fly-on-the-wall eavesdropping we do with the restaurant staff and on to the bleakness and absence of it all at the end. The designers play their parts as well – Kaye Voyce’s costumes have their subtleties of character but are outdone by the Vagrant-to-chef Christina is a stunning achievement. Jian Jung’s set of moving walls furthers that constant spirit of disorientation. The brightness of the café scene doesn’t quite prepare us for the ultimate darkness created by the swath of black paint. Add Masha Tsimring’s inky darkness made scarier by the blood-red accents and you have an astute meeting of lighting and scenic effects. Tei Blow’s ever-present sound design underscores the trajectory toward a chamber of horrors.

Playwrights Horizons has given us some of the most striking theater this season. Starting with what is sure to be awarded Best Play at this year’s Tony Awards, Stereophonic was followed by the trio of Sad Boys in Harpy Land, School Pictures and Amusements, each provocative in its own way. Teeth, and now Staff Meal, give us adventure in our theatergoing. To paraphrase from the lady in the audience, “Have you read the news? The world is BURNING, but Playwrights Horizons isn’t just doodling on the walls!”

Staff Meal (through May 24, 2024)

Playwrights Horizons

Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.my.playwrightshorizons.org

Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (57 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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