When the 2001-02 season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is but a memory, the most entertaining show of the year may prove to have been Becky Mode's Fully Committed, opening in the downstairs Studio Theatre this week. The fast-paced comedy about the trials of a reservations clerk working in the dismal basement of a posh New York restaurant poses a great challenge for the lone actor who dares it.
Jay Russell, who recently swung through the Fox Theatre to sing the part of Lumiere, the crooning candle in Beauty and the Beast, takes up the challenge of performing no fewer than 39 different roles in Committed. In a feat that brings to mind Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Peter Sellers, Robin Williams or, perhaps, the demon-infested Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Russell plays the beleaguered reservationist Sam, Sam's father, Sam's conniving acting rival, Sam's boss, his co-workers and the scads of callers who make his life hell.
Simply by changing his posture and his voice, usually from a seated position, Russell must incarnate dozens of characters and perform each of them with consistency through the show. Though he has appeared in The Mystery of Irma Vep, a lightning-fast comedy in which two men play eight characters and change costumes with absurd speed, he says, "This [Committed] is beyond anything I could imagine, because it's just me up there coming up with 40 different characters and all their voices and mannerisms and being able to switch back and forth on a dime -- it's been very, very challenging," he says.
The story concerns one extra-hectic night in the life of Sam the reservationist as he takes an unending stream of calls in his tiny workspace in the basement of a super-hot New York eatery. His stress level rises as would-be-diners try to cajole and threaten him to squeeze them in, though the dining area is already "fully committed" for the next two months. The calls come faster. The other reservationist doesn't show up for his shift. A photographer from Gourmet magazine is kept waiting in the lounge out of spite by the chef, who's an egomaniac and a boor. Model Naomi Campbell requires a vegan meal for 15 and more flattering light bulbs in the fixture above her table. The restaurant flies into a panic when restaurant-review king Mr. Zagat shows up and it seems the staff has bungled his reservation.
When Sam is forced to clean up a particularly vile mess in the ladies' room, though, something snaps and he turns his passive suffering into aggressive scheming.
Russell did research for the role by sitting in with a reservation-taker at St. Louis native Danny Meyer's Union Square Café, one of the most popular restaurants in New York. He reports that the experience was "scary [in] how true-to-life it was to the show."
It seems that fighting for a table at an ultrapopular restaurant brings out the worst in human nature. Fully Committed, however, just brings out laughter.