NEW LEBANON — “Fully Committed” by Becky Mode is a bravura showcase for an actor to play over 30 parts while manning the reservation phone at an exclusive Manhattan restaurant (remember those?) as he deals with all manner of celebrities and high society trying to get tables that are booked three months in advance. His boss would prefer that the restaurant would be described as “fully committed” when refusing reservations and that’s just the beginning of the pretensions our lead, the delightful Ryan Palmer playing Sam, must contend with in this 90 minute piece.
In addition to his workplace responsibilities, Sam is a struggling actor waiting to hear on a callback from Lincoln Center. He is also negotiating with his father about whether he can make it home for the first Christmas without his mother and we learn late in the play that his boyfriend has moved out of his apartment a week ago. If plays are set on the day when something happens, Ms. Mode has loaded this day for her reservation receptionist.
The linchpin of the play is the chichi restaurant atmosphere as conveyed in the phone conversations by the incredibly wealthy, powerful and deluded. There’s a gangster offering boatloads of cash, Bunny van Devere, who must be powerfully important as proven by her silly name and lockjaw elocution, and Bryce, Gwyneth’s personal assistant, who needs a vegan table for 15 on Friday with all local, no meat, no dairy, no gluten, no eggs, no corn, no foam, on and on…to which Palmer’s Sam hysterically draws out a response as he notates, ”no corn.”
Other incidents that must have been informed by first hand restaurant experience are a co-worker who calls in for dubious reasons, ranking the clientele due to influence, handling your boss’s personal arrangements, missing the staff meal, a bathroom clean-up and the number of different, too colorful personalities in the business with their competing agendas from the front of house to the kitchen to the executive suite.
I have felt for a long time that Ryan Palmer was one of the funniest actors in the Capital Region but there have been times when I’ve thought he coasted on natural abilities and didn’t apply himself as rigorously as he needed to because he is just so damn funny. Absolutely not the case here; his work with director Sky Vogel is an exemplary revelation. Yes, there are dozens of voices and they range from the cartoonish to the understated but there is also the virtuosic manner in which Palmer conveys the character both speaking and reacting to the story and his surroundings as they happen.
Some of my early favorites were Palmer’s Chef, who was all heavy lidded, barrel chested aggression, and the silky Ryan, his agent’s assistant, who may have tipped into repetitive gestures, but it was great how he announced himself with every call by forming a triangle with his fingers…perhaps because he works for the Triad Agency? Sam’s father was a welcome respite for his booming openness and comfort amid all the frayed nerves. There are dozens who announce themselves with their vocalisms, their posture, their energy and their desperate need. On top of all the inspired creativity was the ability to hurl himself optimistically into every encounter and then at one point, stop and expose himself with what the universe was handing him-his disappointment, his loss, his grief and despair. This great performance grows in my memory of it.
As soon as he enters the stage, he dons a headset that will be his primary phone source which he can change lines with by tapping the earpiece, “Hello reservations, thank you for calling, hold please.” There is also his cell phone, Chef’s private line, an intercom to front of house. These devices become so familiar to the audience that we start reacting as Sam races to Chef’s phone ringing and sympathize with him every time he heads upstage to the cage to get a better connection on his mobile with his family. Palmer’s hesitance or hurry to answer his many devices became more freighted as the stakes rose.
An especially inspired touch amid this cacophony of telecommunication is the poor, hard to reach, bedraggled Christmas tree whose lights are on the fritz and need Sam’s constant attention replugging it throughout. The wall phone also became loose threatening to plunge to the floor halfway through the performance Saturday night and the audience’s investment with Palmer’s relationship with this phone and whether the Christmas tree lights would stay on were electric.
The physical set designed by Sam Slack was appealing, a filthy basement with exposed pipes and graffiti, set on an angle that Palmer had to descend into. A great counterpoint as he read the boite’s rarefied menu of “lavender foam,” “infused with pipe tobacco” and “bubbling crock of headcheese.” My only quibble would be that the set dressing was less detailed than Palmer’s performance. If there’s a cage in the basement, wouldn’t it be filled with what needed to be locked up, namely the liquor?
Lights and sound designed by Joseph Sicotte and costumes by Kara Demler were solid, attractive and appropriate but special mention needs to be made of Stage Manager Kathy Hoefgen who is on the other end of those hundreds of sound cues which were flawless Saturday night.
“Fully Committed” more than lives up to its title as the director, Sky Vogel, the Theatre Barn, under the new management of Allen Phelps, and especially Ryan Palmer, come roaring back to life with limitless invention.
Through 7/4, tickets available at www.thetheaterbarn.org.