Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Also see Sharon's review of Lady in the Dark
The story goes that, after a performance of The Goodbye Girl, an impressed audience member approached Martin Short and asked, "How do you remember all those lines?" Short, thrown by the question, responded, "It's my job."
The question would not seem out of place at Fully Committed, Becky Mode's minefield of a one-man show, now starring Jason Graae at the San Fernando Valley Playhouse at El Portal Theatre. Graae plays Sam, the standard nice-guy-who-can't-get-a-break, who is answering phones at an upscale New York restaurant while he tries to get an acting job. As the phones ring off the hook, Graae not only plays Sam, he also plays the twenty-some-odd people who call the restaurant to try to book a table. And if that isn't enough, Sam is also juggling calls on an intercom from the restaurant's staff, and a special hotline phone from the chef. What makes the script so difficult is that the calls don't come in any logical order. Sam must deal with VIPs, out-of-towners, a missing co-worker, personal phone calls, and people left on hold so long they call back again. And all the while, Graae remains in complete control. After all, with nobody else on stage, Graae has to know who is calling even when Sam - and the audience - has completely forgotten.
Graae doesn't restrict his portrayal of the callers to their voices alone. He creates every character with a unique mannerism and voice -- and he's superb at it. Graae's vocalization or physicality alone would be adequate to convey each character. His use of both makes his performance even more impressive. This also adds a layer of comedy to the show; the laughs don't necessarily come from Sam's comic interactions with the callers, but from Graae's frantic attempts to keep up with the demands of playing thirty characters. When Sam's laid-back friend calls, the friend sits with his feet up on the desk. Of course, Sam does not - his feet are under the desk. When Graae is performing one of their phone calls, he moves back and forth from the relaxed pose to the working pose with every line. And he does this with every character - from Naomi Campbell's assistant "Bryce," who always holds a Starbuck's cup in her hand, to the extremely flustered woman whose reservation Sam can't find, who always has her hands up in the air. Watching Graae quickly transition from character to character, or jump across the stage from desk to intercom, is to watch a high energy, technically precise performance.
The problem, though, is that no matter how delightful it is to watch Graae keep up with the challenges of the script, the script itself just isn't that funny. And, ironically, the problem is probably the structure of the piece as a one-man show. The very best laughs in the show come from Sam's reactions to the ridiculous things the callers are saying to him, but because Graae is playing the callers as well as Sam, we really don't get to see that many reactions. Graae has a few really wonderful moments, like when Sam is so thrown by a call he immediately puts the caller on hold and just takes a moment to compose himself. But these moments are few and far between, because in the half-second it takes for Graae to drop the physicality of the caller and return to the mannerisms of Sam, the opportunity for a really good reaction from Sam has been lost.
Upon leaving Fully Committed, it's very clear that you've seen ninety minutes of very good comic characterization. You just haven't laughed out loud very much.
San Fernando Valley Playhouse at El Portal Theatre -- James A. Blackman III, Executive Director/Producer; Steven Ullman, Producing Artistic Director -- presents Jason Graae in Fully Committed by Becky Mode. Scenic Designer Chris Beyries; Lighting Designer Chris Beyries; Sound Designer John Feinstein; Production Stage Manager Stephanie Coltrin-Meyer; Director Glenn Casale.
Fully Committed runs at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood through April 4, 2004. www.sanfernandovalleyplayhouse.com