The real dish


If you’ve ever had a bad experience in a chichi restaurant, or worked in one or simply had a strong taste of New York status-mongering, Becky Mode’s Fully Committed at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Plays and Players Theater will ring some bells. And if you haven’t, it will confirm all your preconceptions about bad behavior, upscale Manhattan-style.

Fully Committed — the phrase the chef prefers to "fully booked" — is a small but sharply targeted satire of New York ego, over which our put-upon hero eventually triumphs.

The one-man show is the story of Sam, the reservationist at a swank, trendy, booked-months-in-advance restaurant in New York City. Everyone wants to eat there, from the famous to the not-so-famous.

Would-be diners at this hot "global-fusion" restaurant try every trick imaginable to get their name on the coveted reservation list, a list that is always fully committed. And only Sam has the power to put them on hold or hold them a table.

Mode has been an actress, waitress and coatcheck girl, excellent training for a playwright and mandatory for this play. For the price of an entr�e, she serves up all the quirks of restaurant life prepared to a fare-thee-well.

All hell has broken loose in the eatery a few weeks before Christmas. Jean Claude, the maitre d’, is upset because a very prestigious customer wasn’t on the list for lunch and may have to wait as long as 20 minutes for a table, and because the pushy Carol Ann Rosenstein-Fishburn won’t stop calling him.

Bryce at Naomi Campbell’s office keeps calling with increasingly absurd requests for a "no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy-tasting menu for 15," and the hostess, Stephanie, is overwhelmed with hostile customers, a photographer from Gourmet magazine and a messy disaster in the ladies’ room.

Attempting to hold all this together is the one sane person on the premises, the reservation clerk and aspiring actor Sam, who is desperately hoping for a callback at Lincoln Center and a few days off to visit his widowed father back in the Midwest. Unfortunately, what with the increasingly outrageous demands of the chef, the gloating phone calls from his more successful fellow actor Larry and the fact that his feckless coworker Bob has decided not to show up, Sam is having the ultimate bad work day.

As Sam, Kraig Swartz is believably harried and instantly sympathetic — the ultimate nice guy pushed around by a bevy of pompous, thoughtless, self-centered louts.

Working out of cramped quarters in the basement of the restaurant, Sam is screamed at, threatened and humiliated. Through it all, he’s endlessly patient. And in the end, he turns the table on the situation and winds up with a cash payoff, an audition at Lincoln Center and Christmas off.

To call Fully Committed a play is to exaggerate its scope. This 90-minute show is a one-man stand-up comedy skit and, like all good skits, it’s all about situation.

With the rapidity of a machine gun, Swartz plays both sides of a telephone conversation, emulating an extensive menu of characters, striving to give each their individual flavor. With a tilt of a head here, a little body language there, a subtle shift in accent, he attempts to differentiate among the 39 people Mode has written into the script.

No doubt, Fully Committed is a cleverly written sketch. The show’s basis in reality and Mode’s ear for natural dialogue keep the satire sharp. It is structured entirely as a series of interrupted phone calls between Sam and patrons, staff, friends and family. Yet, having to keep so many conversations mentally on hold makes the show less a laugh riot than one might expect simply because the audience is so keen not to miss a single word.

Swartz does commendable work, but this show should build to a frenzy; instead, from a performance point of view, it just plods along. Special credit goes to Nick Embree for his strikingly realistic basement set, which creates exactly the right mood.

Even if you prefer plays with more than one actor, Fully Committed does manage to keep you fully engaged.

As crisis piles on crisis, you keep waiting for the whole thing to blow up or for Sam to scream and walk out. But the show is never that predictable.

Mode has created a madcap comedy with a human heartbeat. It’s all the more horrifying because you know this kind of insanity actually goes on day after day in the real world among people who probably ought to be fully committed to a mental institution.

Fully Committed
Plays and Players Theater
1714 Delancey St.
Through Nov. 17
Tickets: $30-$45