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A CurtainUp Review
(I am) Nobody's Lunch

A cabaret about how we know what we know when nobody knows if everyone else is lying and when someone or something wants to have you for lunch.

Wait, are they saying there was no Jessica Lynch? . . .or, oh, just that maybe it didn't happen the way they said it did. I don't know. I've never heard that. --- one of the many interviewed "real" Jessicas who gets her news strictly from "The Fox" or Channel 5. .

 (I am) Nobody's Lunch
A scene from (I am) Nobody's Lunch (Photo: Leslie Lyon)
The Civilians have done the improbable: They have become a downtown theater company with a sterling reputation, a national touring schedule, and a unique sensibility that has successfully shaped about a half dozen shows. The troupe creates plotless performances based around loosely organized, themed research. The performances reveal their intellect and humor casually, giving the impression that the company stumbled upon recorded interviews and casually recognized the impending punchlines. In (I am) Nobody's Lunch, their latest work, these same methodologies have helped to produce what is probably their most honest, most political, most hopeful piece of theater yet.

Just in case you overlooked this show's subtitle, the introductory monologue by Caitlin Miller makes sure to identify it as a cabaret, which means no plot and prompts her to urge the audience not to get confused. And so the show moves forward with songs, monologues and interviews (with the interviewers taking on the roles of those they've interviewed). A mysterious bag emitting mysterious meowing sounds makes its appearance throughout and ultimately ties everything together. One of the running riffs involve Jessica Lynch. Apparently the group called up every Jessica or J. Lynch in the U.S. phonebook and talked to them about whether they think THE Jessica Lynch is real (who was she again? Oh yeah, Saving Private Lynch). The versatile Caitlin Miller plays all the Jessicas. There are also bits and pieces about one young woman's (Jennifer R. Morris) experience growing up in a cult, and being told by everyone in group therapy that she was a slut. Another running rumination is about whether or not Tom Cruise is gay. As the cabaret veers towards an overview of America and its government, the question hanging over everything is how the interview subjects (and by extension the audience members) know what they know and how they know whether something is real.

The Civilians, according to their own theme song (not in this show), "think pretty hard about stuff… [and] do little and mostly inconclusive research." They also don't write things down, and don't record any interviews. So what ends up in their show is highly selective. Fine. And a good deal of fun, with plenty of opportunity for the group to display its gift for theatricality and humor.

As you watch and listen you'll find that as the ensemble metamorphoses into their interviewees they seem to be answering questions about whether we know what is true about the war, what news sources we depend on. Writer/ director Steven Cosson isn't treating the right wing of our country unfairly but is just doing it subjectively, presenting these moments as truth, not interpretation.

The cast applies a comfortable, straight-faced acting approach to their many characters and their solo songs feel torch-like. The group numbers are whimsical, sometimes even with chorus-line choreography (by Karinne Keitley) to accompany Michael Friedman's more showtune-eque songs.

At the end of the day (to be exact, ninety minutes), the hopeful message is there for the taking, if you want it: Don't be anybody's lunch. Have hope in yourself, in your knowledge, and even in the government -- and give yourself that light at the end of the tunnel, dammit. You deserve it.

Some additional comments.
Coming fresh from seeing (I am) Nobody's Lunch several days after Amanda I was struck by the opening sentence of a New York Times op-ed piece on the problems confronting Democrats (by David Brooks): "The Greeks used to say we suffer our way to wisdom". Not so, the Civilians. In Lunch the trendy young troupe sings and dances its way towards an understanding of how information, all too often inaccurate, is disseminated and absorbed. Their approach to making sense of America in the post 9/11 era is more enjoyable than painful, providing some much needed laughs in the midst of the confusion and pain that reign. Like political cartoonists who have long tackled serious issues with humor, Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman are delightfully outrageous. Speaking of Friedman's songs, if I were pressed to name a favorite it would be " It's Scary How Easy It Is."

I'd also like to add a bravo for Andromache Chalfant's set. If you've been to Theater B at the 59E59 theater complex, you know that its stage is tiny; yet Chalfant's main prop, a circus-like booth with striped front and back to convey the bars of the American flag serves as a visual metaphor for post 9/11 America as a circus where news is in the hands of barkers who deliver the news with a spin.

As long as we have intelligent and resourceful young people like this tackling serious issues, there is indeed reason to hope for the future -- of the theater as well as the world.

--- Elyse Sommer
(I am) Nobody's Lunch
Written and Directed by Steven Cosson
Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Matt Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Daoud Heidami, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris and Andy Boroson on Piano
Set Design by Andromache Chalfant
Costume Design by Sarah Beers
Sound Design by Shane Rettig
Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi
Choreography by Karinne Keithley
Running time 90 minutes, no intermission
59 East 59th Street Theaters, between Park and Madison 212 279 4200,
From 1/19/06 to 2/05/06
Tuesday - Saturday, 8:15pm; Saturday at 4:15pm and Sunday at 3:15pm and 7:15pm. Tickets $30.
Reviewed by Amanda Cooper based on a January 22, 2006 performance.
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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