'Staff Meal' review — new play serves up a slice of surrealism

Read our review of Staff Meal off Broadway, a world-premiere play at Playwrights Horizons written by Abe Koogler and directed by Morgan Green.

Caroline Cao
Caroline Cao

I send compliments to the head chef: Morgan Green, the director of Abe Koogler’s Staff Meal at Playwrights Horizons. If you're the kind of open-minded patron who might crack a smile to the chef and say "surprise me," Staff Meal delivers. The play ushers audiences into a cozy restaurant space where two lovers meet and then takes us across unknown dimensions. This surreal adventure is like a Rorschach test: Whatever you make of it, its meaning is specific to you.

The play's minimalist set does a kind of choreography: Jian Jung's scenic designs of dark and seashell-patterned walls slide away, fold upon another dark space, and open to another dark corridor. Compliments also belong to Tei Blow's sound design, underscoring dialogues and monologues with cryptic noises that suggest that the cogs of Staff Meal's universe are twisting and turning. Masha Tsimring's lighting design suggests other dimensions.

Green steers an unmoored, unanchored show without an identifiable main character. Perhaps the mysterious Vagrant (Erin Markey) is the subtle star, whose mouth forms into a mischievous grin. Or maybe it's the newly hired waiter (Hampton Fluker) experiencing what it means to receive services before they offer theirs to the customers. The characters seem to be objects revolving around an unpredictable universe.

Staff Meal lets its audience weave connective tissues between various diversions and monologues into a peculiar constellation of the human experience. One theme throughout is the idea of contact. How do we connect? How can we connect when we’re deprived of the intimate joys of touching? A chilling monologue concerns a caged, abused dog and its poor owner, a child, being unable to touch the dog, which leads to a poignant farewell.

I’m still digesting Koogler’s cuisine. Portions dangled like loose noodles, but plenty of the show is an acquired taste.

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Staff Meal summary

Staff Meal opens with a romance out of an avant-garde rom-com, where two souls (Greg Keller and Susannah Flood) have a gradual meet-cute in a cafe, venture to a restaurant, and commiserate on the concept of past lives. A montage of their attraction is conveyed through initially terse greetings between comical blackouts – and the intermittent intrusion of a black-cloaked Vagrant signifies the play’s unpredictable oddness. Then the focus shifts to the restaurant staff discussing their jobs.

From then on, it's hard to pinpoint a concrete location in Staff Meal. The stories and characters seem to wander and float through an abstract labyrinth.

Koogler has described the setting as a restaurant space with its own cosmology. "When I wrote it, I was thinking about the way personal identity can shift radically over a lifetime,” he said.

What to expect at Staff Meal

Surrealism is the recipe for Staff Meal's fragmented monologues and incidents. You’re not getting a clear menu — that is, a sense of a plot — from the outset. Set transformations underscore the monologues. A side screen handily signifies when you’re being plunged into flashbacks. At my peformance, waves of engaged and confused laughter alike poured out from various sections of the audience.

For those who might be confused by the setup, Koogler writes in an audience surrogate (a scathing and charismatic Stephanie Berry), who rises from the audience to rail against the play’s baffling structure and banal conversations. My audience broke into laughter when Berry criticized divisive shows by “emerging playwrights.” A character also comments, “You made it this far.” Through these meta addresses, the play nods to its relationship with the audience.

Staff Meal includes strobe lights and a story about pet abuse.

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What audiences are saying about Staff Meal

Currently, Show-Score displays a 64% audience approval rating out of 19 ratings, with users generally calling it “Confusing, Quirky, Funny, Slow, Absorbing.”

  • “See it if you enjoy Pinter, Beckett and early Sam Shepard's work. Don't see it if You want a straightforward linear chronological narrative [...] Best thing I've seen that 'reeks of being written during the pandemic'.” - Show-Score user Theatre Maker
  • “See it if [you’re] into a WTF play, of semi-disconnected scenes about connections, with a meta element. Quirky, well-presented, mostly absorbing fun. [...] The ending is somewhat frustrating, lacking a closure to make our ride less random. This Staff Meal is challenging and entertaining, but less than fully satisfying. ” - Show-Score user aka.
  • Staff Meal is an interesting watch about the rise and fall of a restaurant and the people that find themselves there. There are funny moments and a fair share of absurdity and monologues throughout. The show is essentially about connection and relationships and how they build and shift.” - My plus-one at the show

Read more audience reviews of Staff Meal on Show-Score.

Who should see Staff Meal

  • For those with an open mind and heart to new WTF experiences, you might find something delectable in this play.
  • If you’re a Playwrights Horizons patron who's checked out the company's daring work like Teeth and Stereophonic, Staff Meal should land on your menu.
  • Fans of absurdist theatre should sink their teeth into this one.

Learn more about Staff Meal off Broadway

The surreal soup of Staff Meal is more than enough to keep you hypnotized.

Learn more about Staff Meal on New York Theatre Guide. Staff Meal is at Playwrights Horizons through May 19.

Photo credit: Staff Meal off Broadway. (Photos by Chelcie Parry)

Originally published on

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