Review: ‘Fully Committed’ at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, PA

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Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s frenetic 1999 comedy that spoofs the unpleasant underbelly of the restaurant business, is being given a highly enjoyable production at Theatre Horizon in Norristown. It’s a terrific showcase for Michael Doherty, the local actor who switches back and forth between 36 characters over the course of 80 minutes.

Michael Doherty in "Fully Committed." Photo: by Matthew J. Photography.
Michael Doherty in ‘Fully Committed. Photo: by Matthew J. Photography.

Doherty’s primary character is Sam, who we see here over the course of one tumultuous day answering phones at one of Manhattan’s most exclusive – and most pretentious – restaurants. Mode delights in skewering hip foodie culture: The chef specializes in “molecular gastronomy,” meals run $300 – $400 a head, and the reservation list is sold out – or, to use a gentler term, “fully committed” – for the next two months. And everyone who’s anyone in New York and Hollywood is fighting to get in – not so much for the food as for the need to make an impression.

Sam’s co-workers on the phone bank have failed to show up to work on this day, and as a series of VIPs angle for any available table, it’s up to Sam to clean up the messes others have left behind (both literally and figuratively). Meanwhile, Sam, a struggling actor, is trying to land an acting job and deal with a poignant family crisis. But the phone calls keep coming in, and Sam, stuck in a cramped basement and isolated from the glamorous dining room above, gets more and more frazzled.

Doherty portrays not just Sam but everyone he speaks to on the phone. That means he gets to play 36 characters, everyone from the snooty maitre’d to a Gourmet Magazine photographer to someone the script calls “Laryngitis Guy.” He gives them all distinct voices and personalities; he even does an accurate impression of a certain presidential candidate at one point. It’s quite a spectacle, and Doherty is up to the challenge.

The funniest of the callers is Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant Bryce, played by Doherty with a detached air and his legs twirling in the air. Bryce demands a 15-person vegan tasting menu, no female wait staff, and adjustments to the interior decorating so that Gwyneth doesn’t have to see any unattractive lighting sconces. Bryce is a character who allows Mode to satirize several pop culture targets at once.

Fully Committed premiered Off-Broadway in 1999, and Mode has rewritten the show for its current Broadway run starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson; the new version of the script is being used here. That means that there are updated references to innovations like Siri and Tinder, as well as some trendy-sounding entrees that sound scarily authentic, such as “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating, scent-filled pillow dusted with edible dirt.”

Oddly, though, some of the more basic references have not been updated; at several points, Sam must deal with problems involving his Bell Atlantic account. You’d think Mode would know that Bell Atlantic changed its name to Verizon sixteen years ago.

Some of the gags are too obvious; when you see a water pipe in the middle of the stage labelled “Hot! Do Not Touch,” you can easily predict what part that pipe will play in the comedy. And occasionally the plot twists become too preposterous; at one point Sam is summoned out of his basement enclave for a menial task that would never be assigned to him in real life.

But if the situation tends to be too silly and unlikely, Doherty holds Fully Committed together with his precise timing and clever characterizations. It can be hard at first to keep some of the repeat callers straight, and the fact that the women tend to sound like men (and that one woman sounds suspiciously like Harvey Fierstein) is part of the humor. But eventually it all makes sense, and Doherty is so likable that he makes it easy to root for him against the obnoxious forces that make his life so difficult. And he seems supremely comfortable on Brian Dudkiewicz’s artfully cluttered set.

Directed by Kathryn MacMillan with a nicely paced rhythm – it’s frantic most of the time, but there are pauses for Doherty and the audience to relax – Fully Committed goes down smoothly. It’s much more satisfying than “crispy deer lichen” would ever be.

Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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Fully Committed plays through Sunday, June 5, 2016 at Theatre Horizon – 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 283-2230, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Richard Seff reviews ‘Fully Committed at The Lyceum in NYC.