‘Staff Meal’ Review: The Last Course for Doomsday Diners and Dates

‘Staff Meal’ Review: The Last Course for Doomsday Diners and Dates

A woman in the audience started grumbling around 30 minutes into a recent performance of “Staff Meal” at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan. “What is this play about?” she hissed. A few uncomfortable seconds after she stood up and repeated her gripe for everyone to hear, it was clear that she was part of the show, which opened on Sunday.

The disgruntled audience member, played with relatable side-eye by Stephanie Berry, goes on to summarize the setup so far: Two strangers buried behind their laptops, Ben (Greg Keller) and Mina (Susannah Flood), strike up an awkward flirtation at an anodyne cafe. (“Singles in the city? I’ve kinda seen it before,” Berry’s heckler says.) They head to a restaurant where, just outside the kitchen, two veteran servers (Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy) are schooling a new waiter (Hampton Fluker) on his first day. (“Is this a play about restaurants or the people who work there?” the heckler asks.)

She goes on to bemoan the frivolity of “emerging writers” who keep “doodling on the walls” as the world burns. “Take a stand! Inspire action!” she pleads. She’s not alone in that sentiment.

Embedding self-conscious commentary about the worthiness of a new play, as the writer Abe Koogler does here, is an increasingly common trope. (Alexandra Tatarsky did it with unhinged gusto in “Sad Boys in Harpy Land,” presented at this theater in November.) Blame it on the world being in flames, and the playwrights who can’t help but notice.

But preemptively asking what the point is raises the expectation of a satisfactory answer, or at least one that responds to the provocation.

There is no one else to object when Berry’s character does what she has just harangued others for doing: relaying a bit of autobiography — she’s a widow and onetime aspiring dancer — that has no obvious plot significance. Back at the restaurant, the chef, Christina (Erin Markey), unveils her own surprising origins: a fantastical tale of class, opportunity and reinvention.Koogler’s previous plays — “Fulfillment Center” premiered Off Broadway in 2017, and “Kill Floor” in 2015 — set up uneasy contrasts between wounded characters and their dystopian workplaces. “Staff Meal” is more loosely constructed and absurdist. Though Ben and Mina eventually forge an incidental unity, and the unnamed restaurant servers bond over industry expertise, the dialogue is less concerned with human connection than with exploring the circumstances that generally necessitate it: proximity in public, collaboration on the job, sitting down in a theater.

The production, directed by Morgan Green, gathers an air of foreboding as it goes. The walls of Jian Jung’s set shift with glacial heft, hemming the action into tight corners or separating to suggest a looming void; scarlet lighting (by Masha Tsimring) and industrial sound (Tei Blow) do much of the heavy lifting to summon a shadowy and menacing atmosphere.

As it appears that an apocalypse may be underway, the characters hardly seem to notice. Keller and Flood play Ben and Mina’s doomsday first date with a warm and unfazed naïveté, as their seasoned servers, Barbagallo and Herlihy, demonstrate an unwavering devotion to hospitality.

If these are gestures toward satirizing modern complacency, they lack the sting of force or surprise. The play’s narrative components — a meet-cute, a culinary cult of personality — are familiar parts soldered together with an inventiveness that doesn’t hold. You can imagine another audience skeptic getting up to complain that even Armageddon has been done to death.

“Someone, at some point, must have established the rules,” Markey’s character says of how the restaurant is supposed to work. That’s a wink at the play’s own upending of narrative conventions; the challenge is figuring out what to serve instead.

Staff Meal
Through May 19 at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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