By ALAN SMASON
When playwright Becky Mode wrote her first piece Fully Committed, she wrote well of what she knew. She had worked for many years as a worker in fine New York eateries taking reservations and even checking customers’ hats on premises, so the topsy-turvy and sometimes wacky world of what goes on behind the scenes of a restaurant was quite familiar to her.
For its second virtual presentation of their 2021 season the George Street Playhouse under the artistic direction of David Saint has chosen this one-man vehicle to continue to engage its subscriber base and reach out to other theatre-starved patrons. To that end, Saint as the project’s director and a slim, but effective creative team enlisted Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock,” “Weeds”) to channel the 42 characters he portrays while answering the reservations line of a posh New York City dining establishment.
The main character of Samir “Sam” Shaw and all the other restaurant staff and would-be diners who make his life so hellish are rendered with the specificity required by Mode’s frenetic script. Over the course of the 90 minutes it runs, we learn a great many things about Sam, the current state of his chosen profession as an actor, his mediocre love life, his strained relationship with his father and the destructive, competitive oneupmanship he maintains with his fellow actor friend.
Mode’s brilliant piece has Pancholy answering the busy reservation lines, using the restaurant intercom to speak to staffers, speaking over the red internal phone of the temperamental and mercurial chef as well as occasionally answering his own private cell phone. Through nuance and carefully considered timing, Pancholy does a marvelous job of portraying all the characters and gives us more than just a casual glimpse into each of their various motivations.
Filmed and edited by Michael Boyland, the entire piece takes place in the basement of a home outfitted to represent a similar downstairs space in an unnamed, pretentious eatery at Christmastime. The chef’s concept of “molecular gastronomy” that embraces scientific method in order to “enhance the culinary experience” has been so popular that the reservation list is fully booked – that is, “fully committed” – for three months in advance. The reservation phones, usually answered by a minimum of two staff members, are being manned just by Sam and he is forced to constantly place people on hold while responding to others on site or dealing with other callers.
With various specialties of the house such as Smoked Cuddlefish Rissotto in a Cloud of Dry Ice Infused with Pipe Tobacco and Nitro Frozen Shaved Fois Gras Enshrouded in a Liquid Chicken-Filled Orb, it’s no wonder that the public is clamoring for the temperamental chef’s concepts of fine dining.
The pretentiousness of the menu is only outdone by the ego of the chef who doesn’t recognize celebrities like Diane Sawyer and Alan Greenspan and is solely concerned with how well his cookbook is selling and how much in nightly sales his restaurant has rung up. His language is peppered with obscenity after obscenity and his puerile attitude borders on sadistic. The overbearing and demanding customers include people like Gwyneth Paltrow’s handler and a procession of entitled New Yorkers, all of whose menu requirements and table requests border on insanity.
When the phones do slow down, Sam is able to check in with his talent agency regarding a role he is interested in playing in an upcoming production of “Twelfth Night” at Lincoln Center or to converse with his own family members.
There are a number of cutaway shots that give the piece multiple angles and closeups which enable Pancholy to express the many different characters depicted in the work. Helen Tewksbury returns to her usual role as art director and props master in this production.
The brilliance of Mode’s writing requires an actor of enormous range and Pancholy does not disappoint those familiar with the piece. Fully Committed initially bowed at the Vineyard Theatre in 1999 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run at the Cherry Lane Theatre that ran in 2000 for a year in a half. It was last seen on Broadway in a 2016 limited run at the Lyceum Theatre with Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
With all of its many buzzing and ringing sounds, the sound design by Ryan Rumery is outstanding and elevated by the original music rendered by Scott Killian.
Safely filmed with a minimal film crew, the play does make one think about what previously passed for normal in the pre-pandemic era.
Fully Committed starring Maulik Pancholy is available as a film on demand from now through April 11. Tickets are $33 each and are available through the George Street Playhouse. In addition to the regular film, an enhanced audio description version is also available through live stream.