Playwright Greg Kotis Presents “Lunchtime” of the Soul

Amy Berryman, Milo Kotis and Ayun Halliday fighting for their lives in Lunchtime. Photo: Gyda Arber.

Greg Kotis’ new play Lunchtime runs at The Brick Theater, in Brooklyn, through March 18, in rep with Zamboni Godot by Ayun Halliday, the playwright’s collaborator and spouse. Their company, Theater of the Apes, is presenting both plays.

Kotis should need no introduction. He and Mark Hollmann co-authored Urinetown: The Musical which emerged from the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) in 1999 and, two years later, opened on Broadway, winning three Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards and two Obie Awards. The playful take on a disgusting future in which scarce resources force people to pay to pee was, indeed, a wake-up call to our species. From his New York Neo-Futurist roots to later plays such as Eat the Taste, Yeast Nation and The Unhappiness Plays, Kotis has regularly used humor to ask where our civilization is going.

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In this new, densely plotted play, it is lunchtime. We’re in the world of a perfectly unctuous executive, Charlie McDaniels (Bob Laine), who uses his influence — and slush fund — to get women. Charlie is having a lunch meeting (with wine, like the French — a running gag) to hire a policeman, Stuart Forbes (Micah Sherman), to get intel on a new target girlfriend, since Charlie’s affair with office personality Nina (Ayun Halliday) no longer brings him sustenance. (Naturally, Nina doesn’t know it yet.) There is no need to mention Charlie’s wife in the suburbs. At lunch, their waiter Nicky (Milo Kotis, son of Greg and Ayun) aspires to join the police force — to be the kind of cop who’ll break the law to save the law. To that end, Nicky has kept busy by going undercover and taking lots of photos of the latest spate of violence against salad bars. Who had the nerve to poke croutons into the center of the California rolls and sploosh salad dressings where they don’t belong?

Lunchtime asks how much man has evolved since the days of the cave person. What happens when your fight-or-flight instinct cannot be fulfilled in the modern world? Apparently, those feelings got bottled up and, somewhere down the line, cause cancer. Except if you’re French.

Back at the office, where a deadline for a major client report looms large, Charlie has been playing Nina and his new recruit, Louise (Amy Berryman), against each other. After arranging for Stuart to trail Louise and steal her diary to get inside her head, Charlie brings out his best bad pickup lines. Just as Louise makes it clear she’s not interested, Nina discovers them. Charlie fires Nina, but she’s undeterred: she manages to obtain Stuart’s firearm. “You can’t fight nature,” Stuart states. “I could if I had a gun,” Nina replies. Then Nina confronts Charlie, the deluded playboy: “You make me feel ugly. I will make you look ugly.” Then she pistol whips him and sends him to the hospital.

Charlie, highly bandaged, leaves the hospital and tries to save his business and pursue Louise. Salad bars, just like Louise, seem to have originated in Springfield, IL. How innocent is she? Who has done the damage which Nicky has taken such pains to document? Is Louise leaving town, or is Nina?

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In other words, Lunchtime is noir pushed over the top. Ian Hill’s sound design includes John Zorn and other inter-dimensional music between scenes. Marc Aubin’s colorful restaurant-slash-office set is just unreal enough to encompass Kotis’ story — especially a projection screen that allows us to see violent offstage altercations. Morgan Zipf-Meister’s lighting brings us even more shades of mood to go with the fighting and sleuthing. But let’s face it: how long can Charlie’s crooked business dealings really be allowed to go on? We’ve come so far since the days of cave dwelling, primitive painting and mastodon hunting, haven’t we? For the answer — and for tickets to Lunchtime — please click here.

And now, five questions no one has ever asked Greg Kotis:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I don’t know! It was probably a question that was so subtle and insightful that I didn’t even recognize it as a question. For all I know, the question I’m answering right now is the most perceptive question.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I don’t know, either! We theater people are opinionated and judgmental, of course, and there have been plenty of questions that have irked and otherwise irritated me over the years. But isn’t that true of everyone?

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

You have me stumped.

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What’s with your obsession with salad in this play?

When I first moved to NYC, I worked as a temp in offices around the city. It was lonely and disorienting and the one bright spot of the day was going to lunch. Leaving the office and making my way to some Midtown deli and assembling a meal from a salad bar — sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes both! — was my idea of freedom and happiness. New York, to me, was demoralizing back then: too many people, too fast a pace, too expensive, too alienating, too much a crush in every possible way. But the lunch hour was my refuge from all of that. Perhaps that’s true for everyone. Lunchtime is about that feeling, albeit couched as kind of an absurdist, existential, pseudo-psycho office thriller. It’s about being hungry and alone and chasing after what you want in spite of the exhaustion with a feverish kind of madness.

What is your next theatrical venture?

I’m working on a few new musicals and plays including a musical adaptation of the movie The Sting and a zombie musical.

If you could take a show anywhere, where would you like to take it?

Anywhere?! Maybe the ancient amphitheater in Ephesus, Turkey. But if we’re talking more down-to-Earth pie-in-the-sky, I’d say the BAM Harvey. I love that theater.

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Bonus question:

Your prophetic voice about the environment in Urinetown motivated many theatergoers — then as now. Any thoughts on the EPA and the state of our environment under the new administration?

We human beings will have to deal with our impact on the environment one way or the other. What seems likely is we’ll deal with it by fleeing to less impacted areas, or pulling up the drawbridge to keep out those fleeing more impacted areas, or both. This is already happening. The hope of those calling for more sustainable, environmentally friendly policies and behavior is that we might still have some control over the extent of the damage. This new administration is all about denying reality, and rejecting the notion that we can, or even should, try piloting the planet to some more sustainable way of being. This has happened before. I can remember during the recession of the George H.W. Bush administration that environmental protections were some of the first regulations thrown out the window in the name of stimulating the economy. It’s happening again. It’s what we do, apparently.