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Staff Meal

A group of people sitting at a table

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Susannah Flood, Greg Keller (Photo: Chelcie Parry)

Staff Meal

By Julia Polinsky

In Staff Meal, now at Playwrights Horizons, Abe Koogler wallows in the confusing banality of everything. You might wonder if author Koogler knew of the Douglas Adams's novel, The Restaurant at The End of the Universe, and this play is in some ways a loony homage.

The first seven quick scenes show Mina (Susannah Flood) and Ben (Greg Keller) sitting side by side in a blazingly empty white cafe space, interchangeable with thousands of other dull, shallow Macbook-wielding coffee shop drones, completely disconnected from each other, until one says, and I quote, "Hey." Startlingly, the response is, "Hey." That is literally the first scene. And the nearly-identical second scene, which is announced with a supertitle, "THE NEXT DAY."

Things don't improve in the bright-white cafe, so eventually, Ben and Mina go to a very dark restaurant, where they wait for a bottle of wine. At that restaurant, two servers (Jess Barbagallo, Carmen M. Herlihy) are served a staff meal and discuss the philosophy of the restaurant's celebrity chef (Erin Markey) and shadowy owner (Markey again) with Waiter (Hampton Fluker), a new hire, while dodging Vagrant (also Erin Markey) whose goal in life seems to be to steal laptops and maybe get a restaurant job.

A person and person sitting at a table

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Jess Barbagallo, Carmen M. Herlihy (Photo: Chelcie Parry)

What the staff talk about: acts of service and flights of fancy. What Mina and Ben talk about: their dogs, their woo-woo fantasies; Ben has a past life memory of being on the Titanic only it wasn't the Titanic; Mina "pings" with the rat from Ratatouille and the whale in Moby-Dick. Mina fantasizes about cozy family-style dinner parties; Ben reminisces about growing up in Sevilla, Spain, in a difficult family.

As hard as it is to describe precisely what happens in Staff Meal, the audience experience of seeing a play that's just this distracting and confounding gets a huge, loud and proud shoutout early on. Saying any more would be a spoiler, just that Stephanie Berry gives a marvelous performance while doing it, one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable moments of Staff Meal. The audience listens to her, but in Staff Meal, is anyone listening to anyone else? If they are listening, why?

Because we want connection and fear its loss. How many ways can an artist say, "We were all alone, isolated and alienated and crave connection and fear the end of the world and it hurts?" Perhaps it's possible to make great art out of those emotions, but if you want great art about isolation and the fear of death, this show is not it. By implication, lockdown art is all about "only connect". According to Staff Meal, we and our families and co-workers are almost always unfathomably disconnected and cruel to one another when what we want is warmth and companionship - and snap, it will all be gone. What happens next is, basically, apocalypse; everything gets dark, people vanish, the earth literally separates Ben and Mina.

The trauma of lockdown/pandemic, and the author's confusing response to that trauma comes down to the image of Ben talking about when he looked out the window at a beloved pet dog, caged, starved, unreachable, and saying, "I love you. And I see you. And I am holding you in the light." Mina, at the very end of the play, repeats this sweet, banal phrase, to Ben, as the earth literally separates them and swallows them in darkness. Koogler seems to say that all our acts of service and flights of fancy connect us, yet they will come to nothing, and any connections disappear. Grim, much?

A person in a grey shirt

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Hampton Fluker (Photo: Chelcie Parry)

Playwrights Horizons and director Morgan Green have given Staff Meal a handsome production. Jian Jung's constantly morphing scenic designs of light and dark slide, fold, slide, fold. Tei Blow's sound splendidly underscores the devastation happening in the play. Masha Tsimring's lighting design reveals and conceals and fades down to darkness quite beautifully.

Over the past couple of years, Playwrights Horizons has presented a few of these oddball, non-linear, what-did-I-just-see plays. Staff Meal joins the ranks of Regretfully, So The Birds Are and Wet Brain, for example, as challenging -- maybe too-challenging -- theatrical work. If you want to grasp at confusion while you hold people in the light, Staff Meal is worth it. Otherwise, it's too much of a descent into darkness.

Staff Meal

At Playwrights Horizons

416 W 42nd St

Through May 19