This new production of “Fully Committed,” starring Maulik Pancholy as a beleaguered restaurant reservations clerk and some 40 comically difficult characters with whom he interacts, is at least as enjoyable for the memories it evokes as for the actual experience. Sometimes the memories overshadow the show.
George Street Playhouse is presenting virtually a play by Becky Mode that I’ve seen on stage twice before – at its Off-Broadway debut in 1999 at the Cherry Lane, starring Mark Setlock, who is credited with creating many of the characters, and five years ago on stage at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater, starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Sam the reservations clerk. In the translation to the usually more literal medium of the screen, there is a new awkwardness to Sam’s rapid-fire series of two-sided telephone conversations that was not present on stage.
“Fully Committed” also feels at something of a remove because it satirizes a phenomenon that doesn’t quite exist right now – the kind of trendy Manhattan restaurant that charges $300 per person, and takes reservations three months in advance, unless you’re Diane Sawyer or Gwyneth Paltrow or the wife of a moneybags who might have invented Botox.
And it stars Pancholy, the brightly comic actor best known for 30 Rock and Weeds, whom I’ve found funny many times, most recently in a reading last year of funny short stories at Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts …such memories of near-perfect performances created expectations for this one that weren’t completely met.
Pancholy certainly has moments of hilarity during the 90 minutes of “Fully Committed,” which requires that he switch rapidly between Sam and a hectic array of absurdly demanding customers — regulars, rubes, mobsters, socialites and celebrities all vying to get a seat at the table – as well as vividly unsupportive colleagues – a coked-up cook, a vulgar haranguing chef, an obnoxious co-worker named Bob who is AWOL, leaving Sam overwhelmed.
The actor does some impressive voices, and not just comic ones. He is wonderful as Sam’s father, a recent widower who is calling from the Midwest in the hopes that he can see his son at Christmas; the man speaks in a tone that subtly conveys warmth, uncertainty and melancholy, rounded by a slight Indian accent, reflecting Pancholy’s own heritage.
The main problem is that Pancholy – or his director, David Saint – is not satisfied in using voices or facial expressions to distinguish between the various characters. His performance is replete with studied gestures and physical stage business.
A caller is shown petting a cat; another checking out her neck in the mirror (this is the one whose husband, Sam is told, might have invented Botox.) The more subtle these are, the more acceptable. But Mrs. Bunny Vandevere is touching her neck and her cheek while looking at herself in the mirror every single time she’s on the line, and other characters are burdened with bouts of slapstick that just aren’t all that funny, and also undermine both the focus on Sam and the pacing.
Still, “Fully Committed” is a delectable treat, especially for those who’ve never partaken of it before. There are pluses to this production — the sound design enhances the proceedings in a way I didn’t notice on stage — but there are reasons this has been a regional theater favorite in the two decades since its debut. There’s even some heart in it, as we get to know Sam, a struggling actor whose life hasn’t been going as well as he had hoped, and is made worse by his having to work here. And there is even a plot, with a happy ending. But the satire is what gives the play its tart flavor.
Consider the dish he describes from the menu to an inquisitive caller: “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt.”
Later, an elderly woman named Judith Rush calls to complain to Sam about….everything, including her sciatica…but especially her meal:
And for some cockamamie reason there was dirt sprinkled on one of my appetizers.
Yeah, that’s sort of a conceptual choice.
Well it’s not a very good concept, is it?
Even later, Sam relays a message to the chef that an editor at Bon Appetit is annoyed that he’s kept her photographer waiting in the restaurant’s lounge since 8:30 in the morning
“Yeah, well,” the chef replies in a huff, “maybe she should have thought of that when she wrote that shit about my edible dirt.”
George Street Playhouse
Online March 23-April 11, 2021
Written by Becky Mode
Directed by David Saint
Art direction by Helen Tewksbury
Cinematography and editing by Michael Boylan
Original music and sound design by Scott Killian
Sound editing by Ryan Rumery
Performed by Maulik Pancholy
Running time: 90 minutes