It’s easy to see why Fully Committed makes a sensible project for the streaming stage. Becky Mode’s 1999 comedy takes place in real time, requires only one set, and offers a choice role for a versatile actor with killer timing. George Street Playhouse’s polished presentation features Maulik Pancholy, best known for television roles on 30 Rock and Weeds, under the direction of David Saint, the company’s artistic director.
For those who haven’t done time in the restaurant world, the title is industry speak for “even the Pope can’t get a table.” Pancholy plays Sam, an aspiring actor toiling away as a reservationist in Manhattan’s hot spot du jour, placating pushy customers in a windowless basement office while the jet set sip martinis above his head. (Helen Tewksbury renders the subterranean digs with ideal sterility, a perfect contrast to any swanky NYC saloon.) He also gives voice to every irate patron who just must have a prime reservation for Saturday night, and make sure that table is nowhere near the kitchen.
The callers include entitled socialites, discount-hunting senior citizens, and clueless Southern tourists. Pancholy also embodies the macho head chef, snooty French maître d’hôtel, and his missing-in-action supervisor. Each character is given a distinct voice and mannerism, and Pancholy smartly walks up to the line of caricature without crossing it. His physical dexterity also deserves high marks, as he handles multiple phone lines and intersecting cords with balletic befuddlement.
As fun as it is to watch Pancholy transform himself into a Park Avenue matron or a preening celebrity assistant, he’s at his most accomplished building out the central character. Sam’s brief interactions with his father, a recent widower, are quietly moving. He also projects the touching angst that can accompany a stalling career. The play’s best scene—a sweet, surprise interaction with an older man who happens to be from Sam’s hometown—provokes unforced chills.
The benefit of an ace performer and a slick production have a somewhat adverse effect on the material, however. By rights, this should be a period piece, but Mode has updated the text to reflect shifts in the industry since its first mounting. This creates an inadvertent Frankenstein’s monster of a playscript, with references to OpenTable and Yelp coexisting alongside fax machines and paper spreadsheets. You can’t help feeling the play itself would be stronger if kept in the Y2K world.
More troubling, though, is the gloss it gives on restaurant culture. Amid an ongoing reckoning with the toxic behavior and sexual harassment that run rampant within this world, it’s unwelcome to confront the blithe glorification of an abusive chef character, even when it’s played for laughs. And after recent revelations about the workplace culture at the food magazine Bon Appétit, having one of the callers Pancholy portrays be a cowering assistant from that publication who tries to remain calm as she ducks from the objects her boss hurls at her seems inadvisable.
Enjoying the production requires compartmentalizing some of these negative, outdated attitudes and focusing on Pancholy’s superb performance. That’s a choice some potential viewers won’t be willing to make, and that’s fine.
When we go back
There is one thing we should all get on board with, though. In a brief pre-performance voiceover, Saint highlights the collective desire to patronize the restaurants that have suffered throughout the pandemic. “When you do return to that restaurant, please remember to be nice to the restaurant employees.” That kindness should begin with the person taking your reservation.
Image description: A scene from George Street Playhouse’s Fully Committed. Actor Maulik Pancholy, an Indian American man in his 40s, sits in a cluttered office talking on the phone with a small headset. He’s smiling and wearing a blue sweatshirt. His desk and the walls around him are crowded with things like takeout food containers, tinsel garlands, calendars, posters, office supplies, and a red sign that says “Under no circumstances take a reservation for Ned Finlay, per chef!!!!!”
What, When, Where
Fully Committed. By Becky Mode. Directed by David Saint. George Street Playhouse. Streaming on demand through April 11, 2021 ($33 rental fee).
Fully Committed is closed captioned, and an audio-described version of the production is available.