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Table For Who? “Staff Meal” reviewed

It will be hard to assess Staff Meal, the new metatheatrical Abe Koogler play that has opened at Playwrights Horizons this week, without divulging spoilers. But how does one describe a largely plotless work and not talk about its tricks? How does one convey that a few loosely strung-together conceits don’t tie together into a rewarding work and not be blunt about some of the threads? I shall try.

A shamelessly shapeshifting play, Staff Meal initially seems to trace the steps of David Ives or the recently departed Christopher Durang, as two thinly-drawn singletons, Ben (Greg Keller) and Mina (Susannah Flood), bond at a coffee shop, with some scenes occurring in such quick succession that there isn’t even room a line of dialogue. Eventually, they decide to head out, walking around the city (set designer Jian Jung’s origami-like state configures and reconfigures itself into increasingly claustrophobic confines) and settling in at a fancy restaurant.

But something seems to be off. The restaurant doesn’t have other patrons, the waiter (Hampton Fluker) acknowledges to the audience that there is a long trek to an underground wine cellar, and the enigmatic chef (Erin Markey) bears a striking resemblance to several other characters, including an odd vagrant that we meet early on. By the time a mid-play interruption (an ill-advised device that pales in comparison to a similar one created over a decade ago by Jonas Hassen Khemiri in Invasion) tilts the show off its axis, it’s clear that Koogler has other things in mind with Staff Meal.

The trouble is that the playwright can’t communicate what those are. Ben and Mina seem to exist in a different orbit than Markey’s characters, who also seem to breathe a different air than that of two veteran servers played by Jess Barbagallo and Carmen M. Herlihy who mostly exist to intimidate Fluker’s character. And a monologue delivered by Stephanie Berry offers a meta-commentary on the play itself, but not a meaty commentary on any actual themes. The stakes seem to get higher after a spell and the show literally gets much darker (Masha Tsimring works acts of great heroism throughout the show), but it’s never clear what is really going on or who has what to lose. You want to make your show metaphorical? Parabular? Fable-like? That’s fine – but only as long as you can clue your audience in as to what your journey should resonate with.

To be clear, this cast of New York theatre stalwarts is in no way at fault. (And one of the show’s disappointments is that we can’t learn more about Ben, Mina, or the wait staff.) Nor is the technical team corralled by director Morgan Green – in addition to Jung and Tsimring, sound designer Tei Blow punctuates the production, reminding us that we should be feeling a certain way even when the show itself cannot express why.

I applaud Koogler’s insistence on irreverence. He has clearly attempted to push the form forward since earlier works like Kill Floor and Fulfillment Center. But as Berry’s character reminds us, an audience’s time is valuable, and life is short. A play is not a vibe, and cutesiness just doesn’t cut it here.

Staff Meal

Playwrights Horizons