Section: Arts

Review: Lunch Bunch tugs at hearts, makes bellies grumble

Review: Lunch Bunch tugs at hearts, makes bellies grumble

From left: Murphy, Harumi, Teitelbaum, Goldberg, Farrell, Mladineo, Borghesani, Kahle and Hamblett | COURTESY OF DIYA CHABRIA

Eight employees. Five days of the week. One lunch bunch. 

Lunch Bunch, written by Adrian Einspanier, directed by Isla Hamblett ’24 and assistant directed by Sam Phillips ’26, opened on Thursday at 8 p.m. in the Bolton Theater. “Basically, it’s about existential dread,” public defender Greg, played by Jack Teitelbaum ’24, explains to his colleague. “Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized.” In a nutshell, this is Lunch Bunch. Centered around a public defender’s office, the employees obsess over the one thing they can control: their lunch. In a darkly humorous, well-acted and brilliantly designed play, the Kenyon College Dance, Drama & Cinema Club presented a commentary on happiness and modern anxieties. 

The play starts with Tal, played by Ellie Kahle ’25, announcing that she is leaving for Paris. In her absence, a new person must take her place in the lunch bunch, wherein employees take turns bringing lunch for the group. New employee Mitra, played by Liza Borghesani ’24, is chosen to take her place, a careful adjustment to a complex system. The dynamic is completely thrown off when Tuttle, played by Nairi Harumi ’24, in an attempt to weed out potential allergens, shares that she is going on a Whole30 diet… as a vegetarian. Appalled at the idea of eating only vegetables for 30 days, the exclusive lunch bunch is forced to include timid, awkward Nicole, played by Kate Goldberg ’24. In order to join their lunch-sharing group, the lawyers explain the requirements: respect allergies, adhere to dietary restrictions and never bring pretzels. The unspoken requirements? Confidence and good recipes.

Drama ensues as Nicole blunders her way through disappointing recipes and the day-to-day stress of working in a public defender’s office. Deeper, darker tensions between characters become evident, especially with Murphy’s incredible performance. About halfway through the show, the lights flashed, the actors onstage froze, and ex-employee and former lunch bunch member David, played by Wyatt Murphy ’24, turned up on Tal’s empty desk. Murphy stole the show as they stumbled around the stage, describing the savannah they ended up in when cast out from the lunch bunch for bringing pretzels as an underwhelming side dish. The sink became a water hole they discovered to quench their thirst; the tupperware became rocks they unsuccessfully pounded together to make a fire. They ripped their tie off with the declaration: “My survival lacked meaning,” an analogy for the futility of working in that public defender’s office. They did an excellent job performing a fantastical scene.

Lunch Bunch has no single main character, making the deepest moments come from close connections between two or three characters at once. Tuttle confesses to Mitra that after completing her vegetarian Whole30 diet, she was not actually allergic to anything at all. It was not food that was the problem, but external stressors. In another moment, Jacob, played by MJ Farrell ’24, declares to Greg in a highly charged moment, “I’m not looking for a Michelin star; just a 4.5-star review on Yelp.” The employees obsess over each week’s lunch as an escape from stressful work and home lives, even though they actually need personal connection. 

Farrell’s monologue in the last scene was another highlight. After Nicole’s lunches have flopped multiple times, Jacob refuses to trust her food, throwing away anything she brings him. In an emphatic monologue, Jacob outlines “the perfect food week” as he storms up the stage, gesticulates to his coworkers and finally sits down at his desk to try Nicole’s BBQ jackfruit sandwich — a recipe from Tal. After a few bites, his eyes begin to well with tears. He likesit! With that, Nicole is officially accepted into the group. Goldberg wrote in an email to the Collegian, “I really love the final moment where Jacob thanks Nicole. Even though the criminal justice system is a mess and all of the defense attorneys are overworked and incredibly stressed, these characters were able to find a moment of happiness (or something close to happiness).” 

By the end of the play, it seemed that the point of the show was not the lunches, though they served as an external sign of inner turmoil. The public defenders actually needed human connections and trusting relationships. Alexis Mladineo ’24, who played Hannah, described this in an email to the Collegian, “For me, even though Hannah seems put together and determined beyond belief, her body is physically showing her stress (the stye on her eye). Her stress doesn’t seem to go away until she sees someone else whose potential seems to match her own, Mitra, and winds up congratulating Mitra on her successes… I took this all to mean that while determination is great, people need those connections with others as well to succeed in a healthy way, or they’ll have a mental break like Jacob or a stye like Hannah.”

When asked what worked well in the show, Mladineo wrote, “I think a lot of things worked really well, but I was most surprised by how well the set and lightning helped to uplift the narrative. I think these elements helped ground us into the office environment. The set especially felt organized but also a little chaotic and perhaps difficult to navigate in the same way our ‘jobs’ as public defenders could get a bit chaotic.” Indeed, from a design standpoint, the show was stunning. A public defender’s office is not a particularly artistic place, but the desks arranged on layered platforms created visually interesting lines that the actors navigated through. With the kitchen at the center and Jacob elevated in a position of power above Nicole, the defenders’ values are clearly communicated through the set design by Syou Nam Thai ’23. The blue and brown color contrast broke the typical office beiges and grays without being unrealistic. The actors’ costumes, designed by Kerry Patterson, perfectly showed their personalities despite being lawyer accurate. Each actor had a coat that came on and off as they left the office or hid in the coat room. The costume and set design created a visually compelling show despite the otherwise mundane office setting.

The days of the week featured prominently throughout the story. The lighting design, by Emily Blanquera ’20, reflected this perfectly. The cyclorama in the background turned gray and beige on Mondays, light blue for Wednesday and deep blue on Fridays. On the last, fateful Monday, the backdrop crept toward blue. The industrial light fixtures created a remarkably believable office scene. During Murphy’s monologue, warm yellow lights lit up the bottom of the set and the first few empty rows of audience seats, creating an imaginary fiery savannah. Olivia Stripling ’26 incorporated live foley, sound effects and diegetic music into her sound design, creating a realistic atmosphere for our stressed-out characters. The characters hit a bell with every new day. The sound and lighting design worked together to move the fast-paced story forward. Stage manager Willow Baker ’25 wrote in an email to the Collegian, “​​The point of the show can definitely be a little difficult to understand at first, but I think that its purpose is to show how food brings people together, as well as how we find small joys amid the overwhelming stress of jobs and life.”

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