A cast of 50, all onstage and talking nonstop would tax a stage as big as the one at the Paper Mill Playhouse, let alone the miniscule platform at the New Jersey Arts Incubator in West Orange, but The Theater Project manages quite nicely, thank you, in Becky Mode's hilarious comedy Fully Committed which runs just one more weekend through October 30.
How do they do it in such cramped quarters? Why, they have the magnificent Jenelle Sosa as Sam, reservations clerk at an upscale restaurant. Merely by altering her voice, posture and adding a few gestures to signal the change in character, Sosa impersonates 50 different people calling on three telephones in a performance that is nothing less than astonishing.
Under Rick Delaney's expert direction, Sosa's aspiring actress morphs, among others, into a Kuwaiti sheik, a Japanese woman, socialite Bunny van de Vere, Louisville native Mrs. Timothy Winslow, model Naomi Campbell's assistant Bryce, her father, a fellow actor Jenny and an 84-year-old senior citizen who has called to complain about not being given her AARP discount! Along with customers seeking dinner reservations (the restaurant is "fully committed"—i.e., solidly booked—for all weekends through February; it's now December 3), Sam has to deal with and juggle the needs and desires of owner Jean-Claude, the gruff chef, her AWOL manager Bob, none of whom seem to care that she's downstairs trying to maintain order and keep the restaurant "fully committed."
Sam repeats the mantra, "Thank you for calling. Could you hold please," ad nauseum, to the accompaniment of a clanking radiator and a continuous drip, while attempting to fend off patrons who use subterfuge, rage and sweet talk just to secure that elusive reservation. One even threatens to go to Le Bernardin!
Of course, none of this would ring kind of true if it were not for playwright Mode's ear for dialogue and dialect spiced with satire, humor and compassion. That people pull rank to move to the head of the line is a given, and here plenty do it. The imperious Mrs. Caroline Rosenstein Fishburn calls numerous times, becoming more enraged the more she doesn't get her way. Bryce calls over and over with strange requests to please his boss, Naomi Campbell. And anyone who has ever shown up for a reservation only to be told there isn't one will sympathize with the hapless Mrs. Sebag, without condoning her rudeness. And pity the poor Zagats, forced to wait like common folk in the lounge until a table opens up!
Michael Magnifico's superb sound design makes the play work and keeps the cacophony going nonstop. The clanging phones and rasping buzzers almost become supporting players!
In its New York run, Fully Committed was performed by a male Sam, but Delaney's substitution of Jenelle Sosa hasn't dimmed the play's impact one bit. In fact, the exchange with her friend Jenny takes on a sharper edge with the competition between two women becoming even more catty. And Sam's concern for her recently widowed Dad is both more believable and touching. Special kudos to Jenelle Sosa for memorizing all that dialogue!
I didn't get to see Fully Committed on opening weekend, but I sure am glad I got to catch a performance this weekend. It was a very satisfying experience by an actress and troupe fully committed to great theater! Go, I know you'll enjoy yourself!
Fully Committed is performed at the New Jersey Arts Incubator behind Panera Bread at the Essex Green Shopping Center on Prospect Avenue in West Orange next Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. The plenteous parking is free, you can grab a bite before the show without leaving the site.