Review: Lunch Bunch Unpacks the Foodie Obsessions of a Group of Public Defenders
The hungry, prickly characters in Sarah Einspanier’s Lunch Bunch do not have time for this…do not have time for you. We know this immediately by the driving rhythm with which they speak, rattling off a menu of meticulously curated home-cooked lunches like waiters flying on Adderall. This co-production of PlayCo and Clubbed Thumb at 122CC isn’t set in a restaurant, however, but a cramped public defenders’ office. Bursting with flavor (some of it quite bitter) and lasting roughly the duration of an hour-long lunch break, Lunch Bunch is a stylish, if somewhat obscure look at the stressed-out, overworked lawyers our government underpays to represent the poorest defendants in our criminal justice system.
That’s an interesting topic, but it mostly fades into the background here, revealed through devastating phone calls directed at the upstage wall and brief asides en route to the coat closet (where, we are told, the heavy fabric excellently muffles the sound of crying). In Einspanier’s telling, the unrelenting churn of lost cases for which they barely had time to prepare, and of seeing clients lose custody of their kids to the state, has led these public lawyers to seek refuge in an ancient source of comfort — food.
Jacob (Ugo Chukwu, more tightly wound than a pocket watch about to explode) is the most tenured attorney on the floor and the Regina George of Lunch Bunch, an arrangement in which each member is responsible for preparing lunch on an assigned day. It’s an exclusive club (there’s only room for five) and offenses to Jacob’s sensitive palate are grounds for expulsion: David (David Greenspan) was kicked out for serving pretzels as a side dish. When Tal (Janice Amaya) takes a vacation to Paris, a Friday replacement is needed.
Newcomer Nicole (Julia Sirna-Frest, conveying a permanent aura of adolescent dread) eagerly volunteers, but the presence of edamame hummus and a blood orange in the lunch packed by the equally new Mitra (Tala Ashe) scores her the Friday slot. Nicole is only admitted (reluctantly) when Tuttle (Louisa Jacobson) adopts a fad diet that makes her unsuitable for Lunch Bunch. Just admitted to the bar, these do-gooder meritocrats vie for acceptance and a sense of purpose in an already thankless career, made even more stressful by lunch table politics.
Most lawyers are miserable workaholics, but one must find a compelling reason to be a poorly compensated miserable workaholic. Recalling her internship with a corporate law firm through overly idealized memories, and her decision to walk away from that life, Mitra explains, “I wanted to do something that mattered,” tacitly admitting that her own comfort and financial wellbeing doesn’t really matter. Stealthily and with an ample sense of humor, Lunch Bunch reveals the self-aggrandizing masochism lurking under every act of altruism, as well as the fundamental human desire to belong to something larger.
These are subjects experimental playwrights know well, and Einspanier is clearly familiar with the strange dances favored by their insular society: The off-Broadway inside joke of the season arrives in the form of David Greenspan, who performs a five-minute solo show about befriending a small band of cavemen during what seems to be some sort of time-traveling camping trip. It will delight anyone familiar with Greenspan’s career, but is likely to confuse everyone else.
Not that this detour is entirely unrelated to the main thread. Like any group of humans who toil long hours in close contact (sailors, actors, public defenders), a tribe has its own customs and obsessions, and full membership can only be earned through trust. This is a primitive evolutionary trait we still haven’t shaken — probably for good reasons.
Director Tara Ahmadinejad impeccably conveys this particular tribe through a seemingly simple (but actually quite difficult to achieve) combination of rapid-fire diction (you might want to Google “ACS” and “1028” before the show) and on-target design. Jean Kim’s set features a wall of cheap red-orange cubical fabric that looks like it was installed in the ’80s and mismatched swivel chairs, perhaps found or donated (Jacob’s has the highest back). Alice Tavener outfits the actors in discount business attire (always be ready for a surprise court appearance). Ben Vigus’s sound design beautifully punctuates the natural rhythm created by this seamless ensemble, and Oona Curley’s lighting in instrumental in the biggest reveal of the play — which has nothing to do with court.
Lunch Bunch is destined to disappoint anyone looking for a hard-hitting legal drama about the plight of our nation’s least appreciated attorneys — Law & Order: Public Defenders Unit this is not. But it more than satisfies as a dramatic Bento box full of savory dialogue and sour insights, with an appropriately sweet dessert.