October 2, 2003

Fully Committed

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It’s immediately obvious that Becky Mode had a great time writing Fully Committed just by considering the title. “Fully committed” refers simultaneously to perfect restaurant double talk (the falsely nice, preferred way to inform customers that they haven’t a chance of getting a table), the actor’s art, and what an actor must be in order to pull off a one man show. Karl Gregory, who portrays aspiring actor Sam, and the 37 characters who set out to ruin his day, more than pulls the show off; he makes Sam’s basement travails a joy to watch. Sam, who graduated from a prestigious acting academy and “just missed” getting a part on an HBO series, is every casting director’s second choice. He’s reduced to working as a receptionist in the basement of a Manhattan four star restaurant.

The joke, of course, is that the play is about an actor who can’t get any work, and is performed by someone who must be a great actor in order to pull off the play. There’s some wonderful blurring between the actor and the character, who must both be all things to all people: the actor to the audience, and the character to the impatient patrons, abusive boss, and solicitous friend. Instant points for naming the confused, Japanese would-be-diner Watanabe after Kurosawa’s dedicated civil servant from Ikiru. The analogy is apt: Sam has to get off this job soon or he’ll end up exactly like the used up old man who wasted his life shuffling papers for other people. The single set / one joke set up should begin to wear thin over the course of 85 minutes, but never does, due mostly to a script and set design which have Sam engaged in a never ending juggling act with the chef’s intercom, buzzer to the rest of the restaurant staff, and reservation lines forming three unwieldy, immensely flammable balls.

The characters Sam encounters over the three phones are at once stereotypes (scary WASP society ladies, flaming social secretaries, evil megalomaniac bosses) and finely drawn studies. Because, while they may not be the norm, these people do exist (as anyone who’s ever had an un-paid internship at a prestigious firm could tell you), and they act exactly like this. Mode has only her characters words to draw on; Gregory only their tone to bring them to life. They manage to create a remarkable range of characters, who, though never seen, possesses distinct personalities. Mode has to get every detail right in her dialogue for it to work, and she does. Characters are illustrated by whether or not they remember Sam’s name, how they respond to being put on hold, if they screech their demands or murmur them, sure of their wishes being honored. Gregory may not be a great vocal chameleon, but he is a great actor, and his vocal impersonations don’t suggest so much the unseen tormentors themselves as the impressions he’ll do of them for his friends once he finally gets off work. The jist of the characters, their most important trait, is always communicated; and in a few cases (the harried hostess, the adorable dad, and the omnipotent Mr. Zagat) Gregory manages to create a fully three dimensional person.

Mode obviously knows her subject (which is not so much restaurants as it is power) intimately. There is a particular kind of viciousness to the blockbuster restaurant and its permanent attachment: high society. The studied lack of formality, with everyone from the boss on down addressed by their first name, is undercut by the constant, subtle, jockeying for position. Everyone is out, in the most insidious, cruel, and petty way possible, to demonstrate exactly where they stand in the food chain (the top) and exactly where you belong (the bottom). One of Mode’s great moves is her contrast of the insiders with the outsiders. The outsiders are either immediately cowed by the restaurant’s four stars, waiting lists, and prohibitive price or they are so grossly overaggressive and mean to compensate that they lose all chance of getting what they want. The insiders, however, have a way of making Sam eminently aware of just how much power they have, even if they choose not to exercise it.

Set designer Steve TenEyck has created a space that is every basement office, right down to the broken toilet and working plunger. Using harsh lighting, aging furniture and softening cardboard boxes, the set suggests both the dank and the stuffy: all is gray, and beige, and dull, except for the pathetic attempt at holiday decorating, which serves to make the scene even more depressing. Sam exists in a profoundly superficial world, where worth is measured in table location and reservation time. The only relationship of any real worth in the play is between Sam and his recently widowed father. By gently introducing the theme of children’s responsibility to their parents and vice versa, Mode suggests that there’s more to life than how close you’re seated to Naomi Campbell.

Fully Committed plays at the Kitchen Theater through October 11, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 4. Additional performance Oct. 8

Archived article by Erica Stein