Nobody, not even a transition staffer, should have the kind of day Sam Peliczowski has in Fully Committed, the boisterous one-acter currently playing at Ford’s Theatre. But Sam seems to have it fairly regularly: Outsize egos, cutthroat table-jockeying, and frantic chants of “Can you hold, please?” are just everyday occupational hazards for a telephone reservationist in the high-gloss, high-pressure world of fabulous food.
There are the tyrannical chefs, of course, and the coke-snorting maitre d’s, not to mention the huffy kitchen drones and the work-shirking busboys and the fellow reservationists who leave you juggling the unending calls while they interview for better jobs.
And then there are the guests.
That’s right, Fully Committedthe title is taken from the chef’s latest pretentious euphemism for “all booked up”is partly a show about what it’s like backstairs at a superhip restaurant, but it’s mostly a show about you and me, or at least a show about the you and me we’d be if we had the money and the inclination to squabble for seats at places like Lespinasse and Le Bernardin, Daniel and Alain Ducasse. It’s a New York-foodie type of show about how outrageous New York foodie types can be, and if the desperation of the dying-to-get-in patrons doesn’t quite translate in a less serious restaurant town like Washington, their aggressive sense of self-importance certainly does.
Take Bryce, the hyperkinetic flunky who callsrepeatedlyto go over the ever more complex details of seating, lighting, and menu (“No-fat-no-salt-no-sugar-no-dairy-no-chicken-no-soooooooy”) for an impending Naomi Campbell dinner. How much more convinced of his boss’s centrality to the world’s affairs is he, really, than your average politician’s average scheduler? The heavily minked-and-made-up crowd at Ford’s opening-night gala certainly seemed to recognize him.
Poor scattered Bryce, like the octogenarian matron and the molasses-tongued Missourian and the outraged Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn, is played with whirligig energy and whipcrack timing by Ethan Sandler, who also handles the restaurant staff, the unexpected food critic, the ancient Asian lady, and the Mafia don who wants the waiters to sing “The Lady Is a Tramp” for his mom’s anniversary. Oh, and Sandler is Samand Sam’s dad, Sam’s brother, Sam’s dad’s oldest friend, and Sam’s agent. (Sam’s an aspiring actor, recently snubbed by HBO but still hoping for a callback at the Lincoln Center Theater.) Sandler, in fact, plays all of the 30-odd characters who jostle for attention in Fully Committed, and the show’s essential miracle isn’t that he creates compelling sketches of eachhe does, which is another order of miracle altogetherit’s that he’s able to keep them straight in his own head.
Between bouts of schizophrenia, the show keeps returning to a pair of simple narrative arcs featuring our hero, Sam: Will Sam get the callback, and will Sam have to hold down the phones instead of spending Christmas with his widowed dad? Playwright Becky Mode, who created the show based partly on her own experiences in the Manhattan restaurant jungle, neatly wraps up a handful of lesser episodes as she goes about resolving those two main questions, in a tidy bit of structural work that (just) keeps the show from feeling like nothing more than an 80-minute series of witty character sketches.
Because it’s Sam’s story that ties it all together, it’s a good thing Sandler is such an engaging sort of fellow. He’s got an open, honest face and a slow, sweet smile that seems to spread across his face most often when things get most out of control on the other end of that eternally shrilling phone. He’ll punch the Hold button, take a deep breath, and grin a little at the absurdity of it all; it’s how he keeps from snapping, apparently, and it’s how Mode keeps the show from becoming one long rush of confrontation.
Director Daniel Goldstein (working from the original New York staging by Nicholas Martin) keeps Sandler up and moving, especially during these momentary decompressions; he’ll cross to the water cooler, stare at the crammed blackboard that charts the restaurant’s take for each meal, or simply back away from the bank of phones, terrified of them but tethered securely to them by the headset he removes only rarely.
Not that he sits static even while things are blowing upand they’re almost always blowing up. The red phone that buzzes to herald the latest tantrum from the chef’s sanctum, the intercom that links to the maitre d’s podium and to the bar, the variously positioned phones themselves keep Sandler hoppingand keep the night’s energy level way, way up.
The show seems a bit thin once the buzz from Sandler’s giddy performance wears off, and a few of Mode’s characterspushy Jewish women, in particularseem a bit harshly drawn in the light of morning. But Fully Committed doesn’t pretend to be much more than a cleverly assembled entertainment, and it did a bang-up job of distracting me after a Monday nearly as manic as Sam’s. Don’t be surprised if it’s booked solid for a while. CP