Appetizer?

With more style than substance, Circuit's Fully Committed fails to satisfy.

| May 02, 2003

Sometimes a riveting performance by an actor can make an otherwise unremarkable play absolutely unforgettable. But in spite of an unquestionably stellar turn by onetime Playhouse on the Square company member Christopher Swan, Circuit Playhouse's production of Fully Committed, an innovative one-man play penned by former Cosby Show writer Becky Mode, is ultimately unsatisfying. I would say it was a bore, but even during the show's lowest, slowest points Swan is interesting enough to hold our attention. Still, like a brilliant appetizer at some swank bistro where portions are small and presentation is everything, Mode's surprisingly traditional farce (wherein slamming doors are replaced by ringing phones) will leave the playgoing Clara Pellers of the world crying out, "Where's the beef?"

Fully Committed is not so much a play as it is a skit. It's a cliché-ridden sketch comedy about Sam Peliczowski, an unemployed actor/overworked reservations clerk at an exclusive "world fusion" restaurant in NYC. The chef is a pompous European egomaniac; the maitre d' is a snooty French snoot; the cook is a testy Latino; and the clientele, an assortment of jet-setters, socialites, name-droppers, supermodels, gangsters, and even a few genuine VIP's who will do virtually anything to get a table. And in the midst of all the chaos is Sam. Good old reliable, plainspoken Midwestern Sam, who is greeted by almost every caller with the Kafka-like comment, "Oh, I didn't know you were still working there."

Will the chef allow poor beleaguered Sam to go visit his recently widowed father for Christmas (you may begin to play the wistful violins now)? Will Sam ever project enough self-confidence to get a callback for a role at Lincoln Center? Heck, will he ever even get his lunch? A Cheeto? Will supermodel Naomi Campbell be able to get a table for 15 under special halogen light bulbs (to better highlight her famous beauty) with a vegan tasting menu and an all-male wait- staff to serve her? These are the points of conflict in Fully Committed, but the real question is this: Did Christopher Swan make a conscious choice to do a bad Jimmy Stewart impersonation when playing his own father, and if so, why didn't director Gene Katz have the presence of mind to say, "Hey, that Jimmy Stewart thing you are doing, it's nice. It's really, really, um, nice. Now stop it."

Anyone who has ever worked in the food-service industry knows that it can be stressful and nerve-racking and that utter humiliation lurks around every corner. Customers will say and do awful things to the wait-staff, if only because they are in a position of power, and they can. At one point in Fully Committed, Sam is called on to do a job that is outside his normal job description. It seems that a woman with diarrhea didn't quite make it to the toilet, leaving a disgusting trail of -- well, you know what -- all over the ladies' room. Reluctantly, Sam agrees to clean up the mess. Later, the chef calls to offer giggling thanks, asking, "Do your hands smell like shit?" and offering, "I can't believe I made you do that." This kind of awful degradation could have been exactly the thing to give the featherweight Fully Committed a little gravitas. But ultimately it amounts to little more than a running (sorry for the pun) scatological gag.

If the director's notes are to be believed, Gene Katz saw Fully Committed Off Broadway back in 1995. He immediately called POTS' executive producer Jackie Nichols and asked him to consider it for Circuit. So, given Playhouse on the Square's reputation for bringing the best of New York theater to Memphis ASAP, why the eight-year wait for Fully Committed? Could it be that somebody, somewhere, knew it was a less than stellar piece of writing? And would this technically simple one-man show have been done at all if Playhouse wasn't undertaking a massive production of E.L. Doctorow's epic Ragtime, which requires an army of actors/techies to pull off? Maybe, but I doubt it. And while Swan's performance is beyond competent, verging on a tour de force, all the fine acting only underscores how flat a bad joke can fall. Before the Food Network came along, it might have been funny to make fun of a menu offering "jicama-smoked Scottish wood squab poached in a ginger broth and wrapped in wilted spinach," but nowadays, it just sounds like dinner.

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