Review: ‘Staff Meal’ Offers Seven Courses of Tasty Disorientation 

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens in this show. Scenes zig and zag in dream logic. But the acting and staging are impeccable. Book a table now.

Susannah Flood and Greg Keller in Staff Meal. Chelcie Parry

Over the years, I’ve consumed heaps of neat, “naturalistic” dramas with messages served on a platter. I’ve also sampled countless experimental works meant to flummox the taste buds. Whichever I’m munching, the question (per my job) must always be, “What is this play about?” Imagine my surprise when, about a third of the way through Abe Koogler’s Staff Meal, someone in the audience stood and asked exactly that, in a tone of angry indignation. She was fed up with surreal touches (green grapes standing in for gourmet cuisine) and oddball speeches (one about a past life aboard a ship like the Titanic). “Is this a play about restaurants or the people who work there?” she fumed. “I’d happily watch a play about that—if it was different.”

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There I part company with the lady (Stephanie Berry)—who, you probably guessed, is a plant. The prep and plating of Staff Meal is impeccable. Truth is, moments before the disgruntled ticket holder stopped the show, Koogler laid his cards on the two-top. Two servers (Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M Herlihy) are snootily training a new waiter (Hampton Fluker) in the protocol of their fancy establishment, an upscale eatery created by the mythic (mostly unseen) Gary Robinson. This famed chef-guru has published a book of kitchen philosophy, Acts of Service. Read it, they order the waiter. The other Robinson tome they push is about wine, Flights of Fancy. These are companion books. Going a step further, the servers explain that an act of service is a straight line, but a flight of fancy is a break in the line, a curl.

Erin Markey in Staff Meal. Chelcie Parry

Those are Koogler’s two modes: service (empathy, connection) or fancy (selfishness, loss). The action begins as a tentative relationship between Ben (Greg Keller) and Mina (Susannah Flood), who meet cute over laptops at a generic café. They go for a walk in the city and end up at a posh yet empty restaurant. The focus veers to the waiter’s awed description of the wine cellar as a vast, subterranean wonderland, the introduction of enigmatic chef Christina (Erin Markey), and the back story of a sneaky, muttering Vagrant (Markey, again) who becomes the play’s governing trickster. By the time Ben and Mina realize there’s no meal forthcoming, they end up back on the streets, only to find the city dark and abandoned, devoid of people but teeming with rats. 

Despite the fact I just dropped a bunch of spoilers, it’s hard to describe exactly what happens in Staff Meal, much less diminish your enjoyment of its uncanny, elegiac flux. Scenes zig and zag in dream logic, forming a nonlinear suite of episodes that become increasingly cartoonish and saturated with dread. The Vagrant flits around the space like a laptop-stealing bat, costume designer Kaye Voyce taking her visual cue from the dumpster wraith in Mulholland Drive. Scenic wizard Jian Jung creates sections of walls that fold in or slide across each other like a sentient maze trying to box the humans (cosmic takeout?).

Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy in Staff Meal. Chelcie Parry

It takes an exceptional director to get her arms around Koogler’s dark whimsy and deliver it intact yet still crackling, and the prodigious Morgan Green succeeds beautifully. How crepuscular and slippery is the mood Green builds with her top-notch cast and design team (Masha Tsimring’s shadow-soaked lighting and Tei Blow’s ghostly sound cues tickle your unconscious). The ensemble is embarrassingly stacked, but Markey flies her freak flag highest as the vulturous Vagrant, all crazy eyes and toothy grins, Charlie Chaplin by way of Charles Manson. It isn’t hard to see what Staff Meal is about (among other topics, questioning the value of weird theater), but the way it articulates the dance of service and fancy is what lingers on the palate. Koogler stokes our affection for the comforts of civilization but also underscores how fragile they are. I’m no food critic but take my advice: book a table before word gets out.

Staff Meal | 1hr 35mins. No intermission. | Playwrights Horizons | 416 West 42nd Street | 212-279-4200 | Buy Tickets Here  

 

Review: ‘Staff Meal’ Offers Seven Courses of Tasty Disorientation