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Food Groups: “Lunch Bunch” reviewed

Lunch Bunch is an often hilarious play that hits on some very current threads about consumerism, food culture, and the instinctive ways in which alphas and betas will always emerge in any situation. But what really elevates Sarah Einspanier’s efficient (under one hour) play is how much goes unsaid and still comes through.

In the show, playing at 122CC and co-presented with Clubbed Thumb, which mounted the show several years earlier, a group of five public defenders in a Bronx cubicle environment take turns preparing lunches for the clique (Jean Kim’s is a simple group of rolling office chairs arranged along a fabric-covered wall). Each one gets a different day, and the meals must be inspired – standard lunch meat sandwiches with chips and carrots on the side won’t do; expect barbecued jackfruit sandwiches or curried quinoa salads. While the lunches provide a respite to stress of their quotidian, often thankless jobs, they also allow them to channel their competitive and creative streaks, allowing their personalities to come through.

The meals also shine a light on their competence in this specific arena. One member of the group, Tal (Janice Amaya), ruptures their routine when she goes to Paris on a vacation, and her replacement, Nicole (Julia Sirna-Frest), lacks the culinary acumen to which the group, spearheaded by the finicky Jacob (Ugo Chukwu), has become accustomed. Chukwu’s erosion of Jacob’s slow burn, trying as he might to maintain a grasp of control, is the show’s centerpiece. It’s hilarious to watch him implode, with a cry of “I need a twelve-to-fourteen-hour veggie ramen with a perfectly soft-boiled egg!”

But this explosion isn’t just about food. And it isn’t just funny. Like a parent tucking veggies into a child’s pasta, Einspanier has planted implicit observations about the brutality of the American legal system. The explicit competition of the lunches provides a shared distraction from the daily struggles faced in dealing with an indifferent court system’s demanding, stressful, and dysfunctional nature. The lunch arguments allow them to let off steam and exercise the small modicum of power they can muster.

Tara Ahmadinejad’s direction is both taut and humane, and she finesses nuanced performances from the entire ensemble, which also includes Tala Ashe (as Mitra, a refugee from a corporate law firm), Louisa Jacobson (as Tuttle, attempt a Whole 30 diet to try and escape her own emotional issues), Francis Mateo (as Greg, a constant thorn in Jacob’s own prickly side), and Jo Mei (as Hannah, the group’s anointed tough “Queen”), and David Greenspan as David, a previous member of the lunch bunch who deigned to serve them a side of (yikes!) pretzels. Ashe and Sirna-Frest are particularly effective as flipsides of the same altruistic coin: Nicole’s needs are so basic that she just wants to do well and be liked, while Mitra sacrifices he own comfort with the expectation that by sprinkling a little sunshine elsewhere, she can help them, thereby helping herself feel better as well.

The technical craftmanship in the small space is also spot-on, including Oona Curley’s lighting design and Alice Tavener’s costume work, which carefully reflects each employee’s own level of confidence and self-awareness (one beleaguered character even has mismatched shoes. Ben Vigus’ sound design could be improved, however; some of the overlapping dialogue laps up the rest.

I hope this show has more life in store – if Einspanier can expand it a bit more, perhaps it can be done off-Broadway or regionally. The art of preparing a meal is rarely smooth sailing, but Lunch Bunch make the theatrical art look fairly seamless.

Lunch Bunch