No Reservations

Jay Russell's awe-inspiring performance transforms a tricky stunt -- the one-person play -- into a perfect 10

Jan 2, 2002 at 4:00 am
As long as the thank-you notes are being written, a few thousand should go to actor Jay Russell for the wonderful holiday gift of his dazzling, hilarious and heartfelt performance in the St. Louis Repertory Theatre's Rep Studio production of Fully Committed. The play, by Becky Mode, is about a struggling actor, Sam (played by Russell), whose day job is taking reservations for an unnamed ultrapopular New York restaurant so tony that the Chef (Russell again) doesn't like the phrase "booked up"; he prefers that Sam tell callers the restaurant is "fully committed." This particular day, Sam's co-worker Bob (Russell one more time) is late, so Sam is alone to face the torrent of callers, all desperate to get a table. It's a huge cast -- 39 characters, according to the Rep's press material -- and every one of them is brought to life by Russell in a one-man tour de force that is a showcase of acting concentration and craft.

One-person plays are usually high on this reviewer's list of Events to Avoid, because usually they are not plays at all but opportunities for actors to rant, to emote, to let us know they are available, to pay tribute to their most beloved icon or to overwhelm us with the depth of their talent. But Mode, working with actor Mark Setlock, who originated the play in New York, has fashioned a good story populated with interesting characters, given us a hero to root for and a villain to hate, and a setting rife with comic possibility. It's a play that actually could be staged with as many actors as there are characters (and probably will be in acting classes across the nation), but the one-man concept makes it all the more fun. Director John Going conducts this solo piece with great skill, knowing when to build the comic mayhem and when to slow down for one of the evening's emotional moments.

We are thrust into the conceit of the play immediately. Russell goes back and forth between Sam, talking into the phone headset that has become part of his anatomy, and whoever he's talking to. It takes a few calls for the audience to become comfortable with this schizophrenic convention, but from then on it's a great ride. Russell switches between characters almost flawlessly, giving each one a different voice and a distinct physical mannerism, so we always know who he's supposed to be. We meet, among others, Carol Ann Rosenstein Fishburn, perhaps the most annoying woman in New York; Naomi Campbell's perpetually upbeat assistant, Bryce (May Naomi bring her own light bulbs? The lighting was a little harsh last time.); and Sam's boss, the reprehensible Chef, who delights in seeing exactly how much shit Sam can literally take.

That's the central dramatic question: How far will we humiliate ourselves to get what we want? Sam is doubting his resolve and his talent, especially after finding out that his "friend" Jerry got a callback at Lincoln Center that Sam didn't. Is all this worth missing Christmas back in Indiana with his recently widowed father? There are some very moving, underplayed scenes between Sam and his dad, who also wants something desperately: his son home for the holidays. But he's too much of a Midwestern guy to admit this and declares that everything's "okey-dokey." Sam's brother also calls, and Russell gives the brother and father similar speech and mannerisms but differentiates between the two with incredible nuance.

And how does he remember all those lines? Russell is onstage for all but a few moments of the 80-minute running time, and it's intriguing to imagine what he must do when he's offstage for that short break. I suspect that some of Sam's onstage trips to the water cooler are built in for a well-deserved pause, for Russell to get his bearings and remember exactly who's calling next. Any way you slice it, it's a remarkable theatrical feat.

John Roslevich Jr. deserves mention for his basement set and dressing, a prop person's paradise (or nightmare, depending on how you look at it). Glenn Dunn is lighting designer, and Sam's costume was designed by Elizabeth Eisloeffel. The costumes I imagined for all the other characters, including Ms. Fishburn's beaded top, the Chef's whites and expensive running shoes, and Dad's cardigan, are all courtesy of Mr. Russell.