Story: Sam is a struggling young actor in New York City. To make ends meet, he toils away taking reservations in the cramped, windowless basement office of a tony restaurant in Manhattan. A typical day for Sam is dealing with upper-class sorts making calls for the ‘best’ table at the trendy establishment, as well as taking myriad and maddening orders from the maitre d’, the executive chef and his co-workers. He also gets to listen to the sundry excuses offered by his talent agent for Sam’s meager acting assignments.
Not only is the restaurant ‘fully committed,’ as in the parlance preferred by the executive chef that indicates ‘filled to the brim’ with diners, but Sam is on the brink of losing his sanity as well, especially with Christmas approaching and his prospects of going home to South Bend, Indiana increasingly unlikely.
Highlights: This one-act comedy has been a hit ever since it was conceived by playwright Becky Mode and performer Mark Setlock in 1998. Mode and Setlock both worked at a trendy TriBeCa restaurant, where Setlock manned the reservations hotline, and from their experiences carved out this delicious, delightful and also poignant tale. A single performer, Greg Fenner, essays an incredible 41 roles in the 90-minute work, including a staggering 37 that he presents on stage (another four ‘merely’ are offered via phone calls).
Somehow, director Gary Bell precisely navigates Fenner through this mind-numbing maze of characters, each of which the actor presents as different from each other in his whimsically creative fashion. It’s a tour de force performance that is all the more ingratiating for the way that Fenner keeps focused on the story rather than capitulating to easy laughs, resulting in a remarkable and frenzied evening of achievement.
Other Info: Bell shrewdly utilizes the skills of his technical team to carefully set the story. Scenic designer Justin Been presents a shabby and depressing dump of an office, ironically in the bowels of such a fashionable restaurant, with a forlorn locker here, a shabby set of shelves stocked with kitchen supplies there, and a lonely little artificial Christmas tree tucked on a filing cabinet in the background.
Been’s audio design includes various ringing phones that incessantly besiege Sam, who is dressed in the casual attire put together by Bell. Tyler Duenow’s lighting is suitably harsh for most of the presentation but softly focused in the play’s more affecting moments.
Fenner, though, is the obvious focal point, and he simply is dazzling as he depicts more than three dozen characters in rapid-fire fashion. Somehow, he conveys distinct personality traits both through a broad array of voices and dialects as well as facial expressions and body gestures that complement each individual. His work is anchored by the portrayal of Sam as a genial, energetic young man who resorts to periodic, impromptu exercises to re-energize his spirits after each flurry of frenetic phone calls.
He’s also the arrogant executive chef, the timid receptionist, the officious maitre d’, the indifferent talent agent and an assortment of patrons, both would-be and regulars, who plead their respective cases for attention in styles ranging from condescending to plaintive. There’s even one guy who sounds suspiciously like Jack Nicholson confidently following up on a bribe while never varying his pleasant albeit menacing tone in his quest for the best table.
There are also a couple of calls from home from Sam’s widowed dad, inquiring about his son’s possible visit for the holidays, which offer an appealing contrast to the brash tenor that most frequently assaults Sam’s auditory senses, as well as an unexpected caller from South Bend who provides Mode with the convenient if unlikely opportunity to flesh out Sam’s back story.
Fully Committed is an engaging and charming piece and a smart choice by Bell for a holiday offering. That’s especially so with the gifted Fenner decking the halls of Tower Grove Abbey with his whimsical performances, all 41 of them.
Play: Fully Committed
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: December 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb