Upstairs and out of sight is a room of sumptuous beauty, a luxurious Manhattan restaurant where dining is a rarefied (and outrageously expensive) art. But Fully Committed, a frenetic whirligig written by Becky Mode currently on view at Stray Dog Theatre, plays out beneath that elegant sanctuary, down in a dingy basement storeroom stocked with toilet paper and Clorox.
This is the dungeon where Sam, an aspiring young actor, sits at a spindly table and takes telephone reservations for the trendy bistro. Mostly his job is to tell people, as politely as possible, that they are not good enough to warrant admission to this gastronomic nirvana. Sam's tyrannical boss, the chef, dislikes the common phrase "booked up." He pretentiously insists that Sam tell supplicants that the restaurant is "fully committed."
They're an eclectic lot, these callers. There is, for instance, Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn, perhaps the most annoying woman in NYC. "She's so ugg-lee," the suave maître d' (a Charles Boyer wannabe) mechanically repeats. Then there is supermodel Naomi Campbell's perpetually upbeat assistant, Bryce, whose foolish demands include bringing his own light bulbs, because the last time Naomi dined here the lighting was a little harsh. But if the elitist New Yorkers have lost all sense of reality, Sam remains sane and centered. Sam is an innocent in a cutthroat world of who-you-know. Although he has gravitated to NYC from South Bend, Indiana, Sam is so all-American, he might as well hail from It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls. (It's surely no accident that on the phone, Sam's father's voice suspiciously resembles Jimmy Stewart's.) Fully Committed may delight in cynically skewering the New York glitterati, but its heart is as sentimental as the next verse of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
By contrast, this unnamed restaurant is a devious place that keeps dossiers on its patrons more detailed than those maintained by the FBI, and the chef is more bullying than J. Edgar Hoover. Fully Committed asks the question: How far will we humiliate ourselves to get what we want? The show also posits the optimistic premise that empowerment can transform even a milquetoast into a man.
The conceit that sustains Fully Committed is that Sam, the chef and the torrent of callers are all played by the same actor, Greg Fenner, who does an all-stops-out job of keeping the pace brisk and the actions clear. Truth to tell, the first couple of calls are off-putting. But after you zone into the evening's showcase format, the 90-minute intermissionless piece, directed by Gary F. Bell, is smooth sailing. If it harpoons its targets with glib ease, perhaps that's because playwright Mode had worked in an upscale restaurant in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan. Although we (and the attorneys) are assured that any similarities to said restaurant are purely coincidental, Mode knows whereof she speaks.
But if the fictional restaurant merits four stars and the Stray Dog production deserves at least three, the opening-night audience gets demerits. While most individuals were appreciative and attentive, collectively I cannot recall a ruder crowd. A relentlessly restless string of miscreants were up and down from their seats, in and out of the auditorium. One woman clomped across the entire rear perimeter of the theater with the subtlety of a Clydesdale. Did it not occur to these insensitive folk that the actor onstage was serving up a full plate of theater? He did not need these distractions, nor did we. Such lack of decorum made many people in the audience even more tiresome than the characters being lampooned onstage.
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