Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: This is a review of the 2019 production of Lunch Box in Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks Festival. The show now returns for a full production, courtesy of the Play Company, with original cast members Ugo Chukwu, Keilly McQuail, Julia Sirna-Frest and Paco Tolson joined by Tina Chilip, David Greenspan, Mel Krodman and Olivia Phillip.]
Hey, here’s a dare! Try seeing Lunch Bunch, Sarah Einspanier’s excellent workplace comedy, when you’re hungry. Its characters are overtaxed public defenders (the script suggests they might be in the Bronx), and their lone joy is a co-op lunch agreement shared by five proud members. In rattling, lickety-split dialogue, the lawyers tell us about the sustainable homemade delicacies—like sesame-encrusted kale chips and jackfruit barbecue—that they bring in to share with fellow Bunchers. (My notes here read: “Buy jackfruit.”)
Membership in the Lunch Bunch is jealously guarded, so when rookie cook Nicole (Julia Sirna-Frest) subs in for a vacationing Tal (Eliza Bent), we have the whisper of plot. But there’s little room for a story, because Einspanier has crammed every second with marvelous character studies and syncopated conversations that reveal the topsy-turvy stakes of a life lived in service. Everybody in the office is tightly wound: Jacob (Ugo Chukwu) is one bad salad away from a breakdown, and Tuttle (comic superwoman Keilly McQuail) keeps wondering if her misery means she’s making a difference. Behind its giddy surrealism (someone goes on a vision trip to the Stone Age), Lunch Bunch is a heartfelt paean to people who work desperately to help others.
Einspanier and director Tara Ahmadinejad operate hand in glove; the amount of dynamic indication in the text (font changes, ellipses, etc.) makes the script seem almost like a piece of music. The downtown stars that Clubbed Thumb has assembled for its first Summerworks offering are so at ease with the play’s relentless pace and rhythms that at times they almost seem to be singing. Einspanier is playing a little game with the audience’s ability to focus—can you think about the real world when someone’s talking about French cheese?—while also being frank about the brutality of the legal system. Lunch Bunch is at once a cry for help and a joyful, fizzy comedy of manners; it celebrates both getting a father limited visitation rights and the value of a good sandwich. The fact that some victories aren’t very big—say, the size of a little brown lunch bag, or an hour-long play—doesn’t negate them. If anything, we are all the more grateful when one of them turns out to be so delicious.
By Sarah Einspanier. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr. No intermission.