“I don’t feel good. Is that how you know you’re making an impact? The complete absence of that warm fuzzy feeling?” There are no warm fuzzies to be found in Sarah Einspanier’s Lunch Bunch, the kickoff production of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks season–or at least if there are, they’re about the perfect vegan brown-bag lunch menu, nothing so intangible and unlikely as actually succeeding in helping people. The play gives an acerbic snapshot of a group of public service lawyers; not a lot happens in the piece, but it crackles with the frustrations of people whose lives are bounded by so many things they can’t control, who sometimes need to go cry in a coat closet just to get through the day, and whose personal lives (what little we see of them) may be just as bleak as their jobs.
The seven public defenders in Bronx Family Court (well, there’s an eighth, David, but that’s a long and weird story) battle an endless series of defeats: missed court dates, clients who face hardship after hardship, family separations, violated restraining orders, families split up. And then there’s punishing commutes, loneliness, a big heaping dose of existential dread, anxiety, incompetence, futility–and sometimes they just desperately need a win. If they can’t get it through the courts, maybe there’s a little joy to be found in Lunch Bunch.
Lunch Bunch is led by the old-timer Jacob (Ugo Chukwu, concealing roiling emotions with stuffiness and precision; you learn an enormous amount about this character by the way Chukwu enunciates his words)–he’s about to get his ten-year plaque, and nobody makes it that far. Five colleagues share a mostly-vegan rotating potluck, where each member makes lunch for the whole group one day a week. (The recitation of the menus punctuates the play.) Participation is competitive; the mysterious David (Mike Shapiro) got kicked out for a pretzel-related faux pas and hasn’t been seen since. (His pop-out monologue, a literalization of the play’s investigation into how humans can revert to pack behaviors, is a bomb dropped in the middle of the piece.) Newbie Nicole (Julia Serna-Frest), neurotic and needy, is desperate for an invite, but Jacob doesn’t trust her. But, when two of the regulars are absent simultaneously–Tal (Eliza Bent) on vacation and Tuttle (a brilliantly twitchy Keilly McQuail, filling every twitch with intensity) doing Whole 30 in an attempt to attribute her apathy and despair to food allergies–both Nicole and the other new hire, Mitra (Nana Mensah), get called up to the big leagues.
It doesn’t go so well.
Sarah Einspanier’s script runs barely an hour, and it’s a little overstuffed with characters and very little interested in plot. Instead, the play interrogates the swirling currents of group dynamics, the atavism we can all display under intolerable conditions, the impossibility of building a meaningful life…and Trader Joe’s. (Really, quite a lot of it is about Trader Joe’s. It seems a perfect signifier for the group: expensively educated, financially struggling, hardworking but never successful; Trader Joe’s is affordable but gourmet, time-saving but seemingly not mass-produced…and the staff has mastered the art of seeming really happy.)
Still, the play is full of chewy surprises for the actors. Jean Kim’s shadow-box of a set, painted in bright, acidic orange and green and filled with a row of not-quite-matching wheeled office chairs, feels like it barely contains the energy of the ensemble. Director Tara Ahmadinejad does terrific work with them; the script layers dialogue, using different type sizes to indicate gradation of pitch and volume, and Ahmadinejad weaves the layers as if conducting a string quartet. There are some silent moments of face acting that bring the house down–and her choreography of office chairs matches the almost musical rhythm of the piece.
The performances are strong throughout, but Chukwu and McQuail, the actors who have the most to play, stand out. Some of the characters, like Tal and Mitra, start to feel shortchanged, and it’s a shame because the constellation of characters is one of the shrewdest parts of the script (as well as probably enormously fun to direct). Only about half the roles have names that seem to gender-map in obvious ways; none of them comes with a predetermined race, ethnicity, age, description. (And the script seems to suggest that even the names are open to discussion.) The interaction among the group and between the characters, necessarily shaded (because what isn’t) by the racial, gender, etc. dynamics we see in this group, could easily be imagined differently, with a different character map: here, to take just one small example, the woefully insecure Nicole is a young white woman and the more confident, competent Mitra is black. It’s Mitra whose offerings please the Lunch Bunch at first, and Nicole who’s still hanging around the fringes, working too hard for their approval, for most of the play. Flip those racial identifiers–or imagine Mitra as a man–and without changing a word, the shadings shift.
The risk with packing eight characters and a lot of philosophical musing into a 55-minute play is that you have to focus on moments, sometimes at the expense of continuity. We will never know anything but a few dribs and drabs of these characters’ lives: Jacob’s fantasy of the perfect week; Tal’s collection of Parisian cheese; Mitra’s one bad breakup story; Greg’s (Jon Norman Schneider) boring regular contribution to Lunch Bunch; Hannah’s (Irene Sofia Lucio) rejection of social media. At times, Lunch Bunch feels almost like one of those collections of linked short stories that stands in for a novel; each character here contains multitudes, but we see only the facet that interfaces with their office circa lunchtime. I rarely think a play is too short, but this could perhaps use a little more flesh on its bones.
Einspanier has a great ear for the various rhythms of speech: the words almost-unsaid, the sentence confidently shouted, the despairing groan. The broad canvas of this play doesn’t quite come together, but I’m interested to see what she’ll do next.