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Theatre in Review: Staff Meal (Playwrights Horizons)

Hampton Fluker. Photo: Chelcie Parry

Before it comes down with a bad case of the apocalyptic vapors, Staff Meal reveals a new and entirely delightful side of Abe Koogler's talent. The playwright's previous works examine American life from the bottom of the socioeconomic barrel: The heroine of Kill Floor is an ex-convict working in a slaughterhouse and trying to win back her son's affection. Fulfillment Center focuses on an Amazon-style warehouse where the workers are treated like machines; two of its four characters are reduced to living in their cars. Some workplace concerns can be detected in Staff Meal but the bulk of Koogler's new play shows a heretofore unseen knack for absurdist comedy. To be sure, Staff Meal has plenty of problems, including a lack of cohesion and a second half that is too vague to support its dark intentions, but it's always interesting when an artist adds fresh colors to his palette.

The play strikes a kooky, romantic comedy note with the introduction of Ben and Mina, a pair of freelancers toiling on their laptops in a coffee shop. Koogler brings them together through a series of blink-and-you'll-miss-them blackouts paced by bursts of bouncy music. Soon, they're on a date in a chic restaurant, riotously trading notes on...their past life experiences. Ben is convinced that he once went down with a ship, an argument that comes complete with amusingly catty references to the film Titanic and its digital effects. Still, he remains tantalizingly unclear about the details: "I've researched ships from the Ming Dynasty, Mesoamerica, Ancient Egyptians," he says, before concluding, "The search continues." Mina's experience is even more impenetrable, so filed is it with impossible-to-reconcile references. I'll just add that she's "pinged hard" on Moby-Dick, because of her deep identification with the title character. It's the weirdest, wackiest of first dates, a bit of delectable nonsense delivered with a delicate touch and faultless timing by Susannah Flood and Greg Keller.

Lest you think Staff Meal is about Ben and Mina, however, be aware that the focus soon shifts to the staff of the restaurant, where service seems infinitely postponed. (Among other things, the wine cellar is located deep in a sub-basement and the stock is so randomly organized that seeking out a bottle becomes an epic adventure.) A new hire, known only as Waiter, is introduced to his two colleagues, longtime employees in thrall to their famous employer. Here, Koogler strikes a new vein of satire, spoofing the proliferation of celebrity chefs who convert themselves into brands, peddling dubious nuggets of wisdom and business savvy along with their recipes. (This one has penned books with titles like Flights of Fancy and Acts of Services, titles you can easily imagine perching for weeks on the Times non-fiction best-seller list.)

By now, however, you may be wondering where Staff Meal is headed, a point Koogler heads off by introducing a new character who, briefly and hilariously, hijacks the stage, acting as an in-house critic. I won't say more about her except to note that Stephanie Berry earns big laughs with her remarks about "young writers, or early writers, writers who are developing...do you ever wonder: when will they develop?" On the second floor of Playwrights Horizons, the question certainly resonates.

As it happens, Berry's appearance is the high point of Staff Meal, which wanders into foggy territory as the restaurant quietly fails and the surrounding city appears to shut down, leaving the streets dark and empty. Koogler has given himself a tough assignment: In plays of this nature, it's alarmingly easy to write oneself out of a corner by glibly ushering in some kind of nonspecific catastrophe. You may even earn plaudits from critics who find hidden profundities in such bleak visions. But whatever is happening is too indeterminate to be gripping. We have enough real problems these days without writers making things up.

You may, of course, give Koogler's concerns a more sympathetic ear, but it seems undeniable that the writing in Staff Meal winds down in the second half, losing energy and resonance. Even as it disappoints, however, Morgan Green's production is enlivened by one of the best casts currently at work Off Broadway. In addition to Berry, Flood, and Keller, Hampton Fluker makes a first-class fall guy as Waiter (who ends up the restaurant's final customer), and Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy are tops as the servers afflicted with a cultlike devotion to their visionary boss. Erin Markey's commanding presence is a big asset to the almost indescribable role of the Vagrant, who, at different times, is crazy and homeless, the restaurant's miraculously skilled chef, and the much-discussed culinary king. (Or she may be none of them and, as the play suggests, the pawn of the mysterious forces running the world.) Markey bravely handles the most peculiar sequence, in which the Vagrant, dressed in a power suit six times too big for her (one of costume designer Kaye Voyce's stranger inventions), takes part in a bizarre job interview.

Most of the production design feels budget-minded, although Jian Jung's set executes some complex moves; I wonder if this constantly shifting environment has something to do with Masha Tsimring's flattish lighting. Tei Blow's sound design includes birds, traffic, "Ordinary World" by Duran Duran, and an electropop arrangement of the Herb Alpert hit "A Taste of Honey." (Trend watch: Broadway's Mother Play also features several Herb Alpert cuts. Is the Tijuana Brass making a comeback at this late date? I fear a jukebox musical coming on.)

While I wouldn't want to quote Berry and dismiss Koogler as a developing playwright -- he has already shown plenty of talent -- it may be fair to consider Staff Meal a transitional work that sees him heading in a new direction. Wherever he's headed, I hope he gets there soon. --David Barbour

(7 May 2024)

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