by Michael Bowen
Fully Committed is a very funny play that shouldn't be a play. It's a television show masquerading as a play. It abandons what theater does best in favor of a gimmick and rock-video editing. It should be shot as a feature, using lots of split-screen, and -- here's a novel idea -- real, live actors for each of the 40 cameo parts.
The writer, Becky Mode, presents the story of Sam Peliczowski, a downtrodden reservations clerk at "one of Manhattan's trendiest four-star restaurants." Like every twenty-something New Yorker, she's a struggling actor. On this particular day, stuck down in the basement with constantly ringing phones, she's fending off all manner of imperious clients and egotistical kitchen staff. During the course of an 80-minute play, 40 people call in expecting Sam to attend to their every need this instant. And as you've probably heard, Interplayers' own Holli Hornlien plays all 40 of those people. She also plays Sam and sells popcorn afterwards in the lobby.
For a narrative about not letting the bastards get you down and acquiring some self-respect, it's a good premise. But in forcing one actor to shoulder the burden of so many roles, Fully Committed (at Interplayers through Dec. 14) shows that it's committed mostly to the punchy editing and character-sketching of music videos.
With just one actor playing all those people, the emphasis throughout is necessarily on form and technique: How did Hornlien memorize all those lines? Her timing is fantastic. How does she change characters so quickly? It must've taken a lot of practice. She's sweating up there under the lights, really working hard. I hope she gets through this without making a mistake.
Which is just the problem. We're focused on the actor, rooting for Hornlien the way we should be rooting for her character, Sam. Hornlien doesn't deliver the performance so much as she gets through it. We all breathe our relieved sighs. None of this, of course, is her fault. She's marvelous, and she has to work with what the script gives her -- which is being bounced around in her chair like an epileptic marionette, making the kind of lightning cuts from character to character that a two-shot on TV does better. The writer has forced Hornlien into displaying emotions, not engaging in the give-and-take empathy of acting with other people onstage.
Virtually all playgoers will say that Hornlien, as directed by Michael Weaver and supercharged by her own creativity, does an amazing, delightful job of differentiating among the crowds of characters she's called upon to play. She exhibits a cornucopia of accents and intonations, facial expressions both pinched and blank, voices from growly to chipper, and so many body languages that it seems as if an entire United Nations assembly were huddled behind her desk.
Kate Vander Wende's set -- one of Interplayers' most detailed and telling -- bolsters Hornlien's performance, with its snaky overhead pipes festooned with feeble Christmas lights, its fright-wig dolls lined up for comfort on Sam's cluttered desk, its kitchen paraphernalia that no one has been troubled to throw out yet. And always those ringing phones, ringing.
Similarly, Hornlien's performance is full of detailed observations: ostentatious gay finger-snapping for Bryce, Naomi Campbell's personal assistant -- and she only eats vegan, did you remember? Sam's fellow actor Jerry, feigning sympathy for Sam's rejection from an HBO special, blows on her drying nails as if to blow off Sam herself, along with her career. The straining-forward, overly made-up, growly voiced hauteur of a harpy called Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn. The sniffing, coke-head emotional voyeurism of the Big Kahuna Chef. This is remarkable, outstanding acting. So what's the problem?
The problem is with a play that, to its own detriment, kowtows so much to TV. Theater is verbal; we need to listen to the conversations among actors. They emote within an enclosed space, and we are there to overhear them. When cost-saving measures come to this, theater mimics the economies of television and undermines its own strengths. Theater needs to be verbal, psychological, ritualistic, communal.
At one point, Sam's agent's assistant urges her to convey "a sense of deserving, a sense of worthiness, a sense of status." Ironically, with scripts like this one getting a lot of play around the country, contemporary playwrights seem to have lost their sense of entitlement, too. The dominance of TV, movies, DVDs and video, have combined to make playwrights forget what live theatrical performance can do.
Holli Hornlien's performance is, without doubt, a theatrical tour de force. But contemporary theater should not force performers to tour their talent about like this.