In the bowels of the hautest of New York's haute cuisine restaurants, would-be actor Sam mans the phones. All may be elegance, soft-spoken service, expensive food and flattering lighting above, but here in the basement there's grubbiness and clutter, drab green walls and constantly ringing phones. Also a jarring, flashing, red-lighted alarm that sounds whenever the chef wishes to get in touch.
This is the kind of restaurant where Diane Sawyer jostles renowned architect Philip Johnson for a table; supermodel Naomi Campbell's gay assistant books a table for his boss and her entourage, demanding an all-vegan meal; the Zagats drop by for a bite, and it turns out no one has taken down their reservation; mafiosi are obsequiously attended to; and a photographer from Gourmet is left waiting for hours. Sam is hungry — he's missed the staff meal — and he has to pee, but the co-worker who's supposed to be with him never appears and he can't leave the phones. A fellow actor calls periodically to gloat over a call-back from an audition that Sam, too, attended; Sam himself has heard nothing. The phones ring and ring. He calms angry clients, soothes bullies, juggles reservations, considers bribes, rapidly dispatches the out-of-town yokels who don't realize reservations must be made months in advance; and deals with loving calls from his own father, who wants to know if he can come home for Christmas. Other staff members are represented by voices over the intercom, and these people are utterly flummoxed and disorganized, too, from the Latino cook to the French maître d' to the English hostess who begs Sam to clean up a mess left in the ladies' room by a customer with explosive diarrhea, since she can't get a busboy to do it.
Steven Burge plays every one of the characters in Fully Committed, changing his voice and bearing, yelling at himself and then reacting to his own yells. This is a role that requires an excellent memory and split-second timing, as well as presence and versatility; fortunately, Burge has all of these. It also helps that he's charming, and vulnerable without being cute or self-pitying. You care about Sam and empathize when he eventually gets his revenge, even humbling the egotistical chef. His little-guy victory over the powerful is one of the reasons Fully Committed is so much fun.
Presented by the Aurora Fox through December 20, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.com.
Another reason: the play's pitch-perfect evocation of the New York scene, and the peculiar and specific neuroses of wealthy restaurant clientele. Go out to the best restaurant you can find in the Denver area — Fruition, perhaps Duo — and wear any damn thing you like. The host and the waiters will seem as happy to see you as they would be the mayor, and as assiduous in serving you. But in New York, dining out is fraught with anxiety: Am I dressed right? you'll wonder. Are they seating me at the chumps' table? Is that someone famous over there, and if so, why don't I recognize her? Is this place still fashionable? Does my order mark me as an ignorant foodie wannabe? And the anxiety is far from unfounded. Ruth Reichl, onetime New York Times restaurant critic and most recently editor of Gourmet, has written about how shabbily she was treated at an expensive restaurant when she visited incognito, and the Times' Frank Bruni had an interesting story early this year about how the recession was forcing many top restaurants to be much more welcoming and less frostily condescending toward their customers than before.
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Although the plot is lightweight, Fully Committed is wonderfully acted, warm-hearted, clever and funny — and it pokes the wealthy and pretentious in the eye. That makes for a pretty satisfying evening.