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Theatre in Review: Lunch Bunch (The Play Company/Clubbed Thumb at 122CC)

Julia Sirna-Frest, Louisa Jacobson, Jo Mei, Tala Ashe, Janice Amaya. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Lunch Bunch is a workplace comedy with a twist, a culinary entertainment served with piquant hints of frustration and sadness. Playwright Sarah Einspanier posits a quintet of cubicle dwellers who make up the collective of the title: Each is assigned a day of the week to provide a midday meal for the others, deliverable to his/her/their desk at the appointed hour. Do not even think of showing up with peanut butter and jelly, or even ham and cheese: A typical menu might include lentil loaf with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts. Or curried quinoa salad with sunflower-coated kale chips. Or barbecued jackfruit sandwiches with an arugula pear salad. This office could earn a four-star rating on Yelp.

Such culinary efforts inspire plenty of intrigue and one-upmanship -- not to mention criticism pointed enough to make mature adults sob -- and, initially, Lunch Bunch comes across as the lightest of entertainments, albeit an unusually literate one; for example, a throwdown between colleagues, namechecking Arthur Schopenhauer and Zadie Smith, brings down the house. But Einspanier's characters are public defenders in the Bronx, trapped in a daily grind of agony as they struggle -- and, usually, fail -- to keep families together and their clients out of jail. That brief daily break, with a carefully prepared meal, provides the necessary jolt of pleasure to keep them going.

The crisis in Lunch Bunch is precipitated when one member of the group, Tal, departs for a few weeks in Paris, leaving a gaping hole in the schedule. (Hurt feelings are not entirely assuaged by the promise of French cheeses upon Tal's return.) Tal's replacement, Nicole, clearly needs to up her game, following the other's stunned response to her debut effort. "I wanted to practice baking. And uh, blanching," she says, by way of explanation. "In that order?" asks an amazed friend. Alas, the answer is yes.

As plays go, Lunch Bunch is just a slip of a thing, a plotless sketch running just a few minutes short of a lunch hour. But Einspanier's dialogue is loaded with laughter, and they never forget that their characters are only a step or two away from despair. Under Tara Ahmadinejad's taut direction, the actors deliver crackling performances, starting with Ugo Chukwu as Jacob, a most exacting, and unforgiving, gourmand. His gobsmacked reaction to one of Nicole's lackluster offerings is priceless as is his cri de coeur, "I need a twelve-to-fourteen-hour veggie ramen with a perfectly soft-boiled egg!" His two most amusing foils are Julia Sirna-Frest as the easily cowed Nicole, her sentences usually trailing off into oblivion, and Francis Mateo as Greg, whose phlegmatic, philosophical turn of mind drives Jacob up the wall.

The fine company -- including Janice Amaya (as Tal, the Parisian traitor), Tala Ashe (as Mitra, a refugee from a corporate law firm), Louisa Jacobson (as Tuttle, who tries fad dieting to ease her depression), and Jo Mei (as Hannah, the group's anointed bad ass) -- negotiate office politics and a screwed-up legal system with equal aplomb. Parachuting in to deliver a showstopping monologue is David Greenspan as David, who committed the cardinal sin of passing of pretzels as a side dish, earning permanent exile.

The production design is both modest and clever. In Jean Kim's scenic concept, the cast appears in rolling office chairs against an orange backdrop that, backlit, reveals a startingly natural vista. Oona Curley (here billed as original lighting designer) achieves some notable effects with a limited rig, especially a blinder cue that sets up Greenspan's entrance. Alice Tavener's costumes are filled with clever touches, including the subtly mismatched shoes on the frazzled Tuttle. Ben Vigus provides key sound effects, including cicadas, crackling flames, whistling, and the all-important sound of a judge's gavel that punctuates the characters' daily lives.

No one is going to mistake Lunch Bunch for a major work but Einspanier, whose comedy House Plant played Off Off Broadway a month or two before lockdown began in 2020, is a real talent and cheers to PlayCo and Clubbed Thumb for showcasing the playwright's work so effectively. Like Liliana Padilla's How to Defend Yourself, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, its humor lands all the more effectively for being placed against a background of hard truths. That's a skill that could take a writer far. --David Barbour

(28 March 2023)

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