by Gail M. Burns, February 2007
Barrington Stage is serving up the perfect theatrical diversion for these cold and dreary February days – an hilarious and well-done staging of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed – a one-man show about a hopelessly harried reservations clerk at an impossibly chic Manhattan restaurant.
Mode is credited as the writer, but Fully Committed is based on characters developed by Mode and Mark Setlock during a time when they both worked at an impossibly chic Manhattan restaurant, she as a waitress and he as (can you guess?) a reservations clerk. The show had its genesis as a comedy sketch, and it is to Mode’s credit that she was able to construct a workable plot on which to hang Setlock’s dead-on parodies of uppity restaurant customers and those who long to be them. The team developed the show just up the Northway at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls, NY, in 1998 and it had its world premiere the following year in New York City at the Vineyard Theatre. Since then it has been a popular offering on the regional theatre circuit because it is cheap to produce and audiences love it.
While the requirements in terms of sets, costumes, cast, etc. are minimal, in order for this show to succeed every one of those elements needs to be top notch. When I first reviewed this show, when it was staged at the Theater Barn back in the fall of 2003, I likened the task of performing it to an athletic event. Like any solo sport, let’s say diving, there is just that one person out there balanced on the edge of that diving board, and while you know that he is a trained athlete who wouldn’t be in this competition if he didn’t have the capability to win, that moment before he springs into the air is a nail-biter. Can he do it? What if something goes wrong? Memories of Greg Louganis hitting his head on the diving board spring to mind. If that could happen to an Olympic Gold Medalist...why, anything is possible!
And then the diver springs and you are caught in the beauty and precision of his work, but you can’t let out that roar of approval until he vanishes completely under the water and then re-emerges, safe and triumphant. Phew! Hooray!
And performing “Fully Committed” takes 75 minutes as opposed to the mere seconds it takes to execute a dive, expanding the potential for error exponentially. As directed by Andrew Volkoff, actor Vince Gatton tackles the play at break-neck speed. He plays the central role of reservations clerk Sam Peliczowksi AND everyone with whom Sam speaks on the phone. He is only off the stage for a very brief break, during which I imagine he drinks a gallon or two of water. The Theater Barn production used that break as an excuse for an intermission, but Volkoff keeps the action moving even with an empty stage by playing recorded snippets of various characters upstairs in the restaurant having crises, desperate for Sam’s attention even after they have sent him off on a rather heinous errand.
Every time I write about this show I find myself placing the adjective “impossibly” in front of the words “chic Manhattan restaurant” because I do find it impossible to believe that such a silly world populated by such vain and vapid people actually exists, but in my heart of hearts I know full well that all the characters and bizarre behavior described in this play are not only possible, but actual, which makes the whole thing much more tragically funny.
While I give Gatton a "10" for execution, I am not sure I would score him quite so high on artistic merit. He did not hit his head on the diving board and his entry was clean, but there were moments when I felt he allowed the character of Sam to be completely submerged in the whirlpool of madness that surrounds him. We have got to know and sympathize fully with Sam because Mode has created a through-story for him that takes him through feelings of elation, depression, frustration, and anger to an ultimate triumph. Without that solid center the show becomes a mere morass of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I actually spent the first few minutes of the play in abject terror that Gatton wasn’t going to be able to convince me that he wasn’t just sitting there talking to himself. Of course that is exactly what he is doing for 75 minutes, but that is precisely what he needs to make you forget. Gatton is a handsome man, a typical theatrical “juvenile” or young leading man. He is not a character actor and he is not a comedian. The ideal actor for this role is someone completely rubber-faced and able to morph into another voice/shape/persona in a flash, like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams. Gatton does not fit that mold, but that does not prevent him from, slowly but surely, building the trust and belief of the audience until you fully accept him as everyone from Naomi Campbell’s hyper-active assistant to Sam’s Midwestern father to a Mafioso who wants The Lady is A Tramp sung to his wife for their wedding anniversary to the odious Carol Ann Rosenstein-Fishburn who the Maitre d’ refuses to talk to because “she has a face like a catfish.”
While you only see Gatton, there is another performer in the theatre and that is the Assistant Stage Manager and Sound Board Operator Ariana Balayan. If those phones don’t ring, that intercom doesn’t buzz, and the enormous red light over the chef’s hotline don’t sound (and stop sounding) precisely on cue, Gatton might as well be lying face-down at the bottom of the pool. I hope she realized that the roar of approval Gatton justly received when he surfaced for his curtain calls (Phew! Hooray!) was at least 50% hers, whether or not the audience was consciously thinking of her contribution.
Brian Prather has designed a wonderfully cluttered set representing the unattractive and unfinished basement of what, one flight up, is no doubt a gleaming façade of minimalist chic. That you can extrapolate so clearly what remains unseen, and in fact unnamed, is a triumphant collaboration of design, script, and performance.
The laughs in Fully Committed are as non-stop as the action and dialogue. This is literally escapist theatre because you do not have a minute to think for yourself while the show is in progress. You can come in to the Berkshire Museum and spend an hour and fifteen minutes forgetting about the frigid cold and the salt on your car and the heating bill and just have fun watching poor Sam, whose life is probably much worse than yours, and isn’t it nice to know that someone’s is, even if it is only a fictional character. I wish I could say “take the whole family” but some of the standard four-letter words are bandied about, so it is probably best to leave children under 13 and your ultra-conservative Aunt Marge at home for this one.
The Barrington Stage Company production of Fully Comitted runs through February at Berkshire Museum located at 39 South Street (Rt. 7) in Pittsfield. Performances Wednesday and Thursday at 7 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The show runs an hour and fifteen minutes without an intermission and is rated PG-13 for some rough language. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007