March 30, 2004





Laughs, despite a clumsy conceit


The fleet 'Fully Committed' makes a lovely actor's showcase as it serves up humor and old-fashioned stereotypes.


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


As tough as show business can be on actors' fragile psyches, the jobs they typically take to pay the rent while pursuing their dreams might have been specifically designed to humiliate, abuse and generally stress them out.


From waiting tables to phone sales, these survival jobs very often put them on the front lines of thankless customer service, where not just their acting talent but their capacity for Job-like patience is sorely tested. For this they went to drama school?


Somehow, struggling New York actor Sam Peliczowski, the put-upon lead of Becky Mode's "Fully Committed," has managed to combine the worst of two unappealing worlds: As a reservations operator for a trendy New York eatery, he gets to experience both the exhausting drama of food service (minus the tips) and the maddening, impersonal brutality of phone reception work.


As Sam, in San Fernando Valley Playhouse's new production, an assured Jason Graae liberally employs his flawless deadpan, a Zippo flicker of slow burn.


And he uses his still-boyish affect to embody both Sam's sodden frustration and his well-earned glee when things, improbably but satisfyingly, start to turn his way.


Graae is also called on to embody more than 30 other characters, since Mode's play has one actor racing around a realistically ratty restaurant basement from headset to intercom, acting out all the voices he hears. It's a rather clumsy conceit--Chris Beyries' naturalistic set makes a strange arena for this fantastical multi-character performance--but it makes a lovely actor's showcase (not to mention an easy-to-produce solo vehicle).


Under director Glenn Casale, the versatile Graae rises to the challenge, giving each character not only a distinctive voice but a posture, a mannerism, an orientation.


There's the chef, a spoiled, short-fused, jet-setting tyrant--in other words, a star--whose deceptively casual managerial terrorism Graae nails with blunt wit. There's the officious maitre-d' Jean-Claude, whose French accent Graae never quite masters but who remains a staunch fixture of this hurly-burly world. There's Sam's dad, a lovable heartland mechanic, forever tenderly wiping his hands on a rag and shaming his son's conscience merely by wishing him well.


Among the gallery of deep-dish stereotypes who try to beg or bribe a table at the unnamed, always-overbooked restaurant, recurring turns that stand out are the flouncy, coke-fueled young Bryce (from Naomi Campbell's office) and the stern, officious Carol Ann Rosenstein-Fishburne, who threatens to stay on hold all day if need be.


Sam's hopes for a theater callback and for a much-needed holiday vacation provide the show's modest forward momentum, but it's the well-modulated frenzy of his reception work, centered around a particularly crazy-making lunch rush, that make the show's 75 minutes fly by agreeably.


Its fleet pace and low overhead are probably not the only reasons "Fully Committed" has been so popular on the regional theater circuit since its 1999 Off-Broadway hit run.To be blunt, it's a play whose sense of humor is nearly as old-fashioned, in its relatively tame way, as "The Producers," with the biggest laughs coming not from cutting bon mots but from our presumed recognition of some pretty hoary targets: uncomprehending Asian, dishy queer, brassy Jew, aw-shucks Midwesterner, haughty Frenchman, decadent New Yorker.


Still, if many of the dishes on this menu are well past their expiration date, the ingratiating Graae serves them up with aplomb.


He's a bit like the hard-working waiter who manages to land big tips at a three-star restaurant.


"Fully Committed," San Fernando Valley Playhouse at the El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 pm.; Sunday, 2 & 7 p.m. Ends Apr. 4. $35-45. (818) 764-2400. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.