Fully Committed: a table for one in Red Deer

Before last night, I had never thought much about what was happening on the other end of the phone, when I was calling a restaurant to make a reservation. Mind you, I haven’t even done that in recent years – even before the pandemic, my standard of restaurant-going didn’t usually have that much planning-ahead, or if it did, I would have clicked on OpenTable until I found a time that worked. Anyway, I think I always pictured that someone whose main job was to seat patrons or manage the servers or cook would have gotten interrupted in their path by a phone ringing at the host station, and would be standing up in the hallway squinting at a datebook or iPad to match up my request with a schedule. I didn’t realize that taking and negotiating reservations could be a full time job.

Fully Committed, the solo-performer play by Becky Mode, was set in the booking office of a stylish and pretentious Manhattan restaurant around the turn of the 21st century. In the Central Alberta Theatre production directed by Tanya Ryga, Sam Callahan (Ash Mercia) spends her whole shift in this office, some levels below the dining room, kitchen, and chef’s office in literal terms as well as in restaurant hierarchy. She struggles to get signal for her personal cellphone, so that checking in with her father involves standing on a table or climbing a ladder, hollering up at a flip-phone held optimistically aloft.

The main tools of Sam’s job include a wireless headset and multiline business phone, an intercom to upstairs, a red-phone hotline to the chef, and an outsized Rolodex. From her various conversations with co-workers and others, we learn that Sam is also an actor, checking in with her agent about whether she’s getting a callback at the Lincoln Centre, but committed to the restaurant job to cover expenses. And the delight of this script and this production is that the performer plays both ends of all the calls, shifting her body language, voice, accent, and stage business to portray everyone Sam talks to, making the characters distinctive and amusing. Her co-workers include her reservations-office boss Bob, claiming to be stuck waiting for a tow truck on the Long Island Expressway, host Stephanie rolling napkins and cutlery while she chats, her kitchen allies Oscar and Hector, a hostile French chef on duty (Jean-Pierre? Jean-Claude?), and Chef, addressed only by title. Chef is especially memorable, because he takes calls through the earthy details of his morning’s routine and other crass personal habits particularly horrifying to see in someone who works in food service.

And I haven’t even started on the customers! From the name-dropping entitled to the out-of-towners intimidated by the “molecular gastronomy” menu and the indignant “senior citizen” wanting a discount and bigger portions, Sam isn’t unkind to any of them but she definitely loses patience.

For a script that is mostly about talking on the phone, director Ryga and performer Mercia have built in a lot of movement on the large stage with detailed realistic set dressing of all the clutter accumulated in a restaurant office (set designer Dawn Harkema). When the performer is voicing one of the offstage characters on the other end of the phone, she uses the supplies in the office to be whatever props the other character would be using – a cook using a clipboard as a frying pan and adding seasonings from a bowl, a Mafia-connected customer stroking a hefty black object as he demands a better table – I was sure it was actually a gun, and then realized it was a stapler, but the performer’s way of holding it sold it as a gun.

There is a plot arc, a crisis, a resolution, but I won’t detail them even though the show has closed, because I liked being surprised.

Appropriately, the performance I attended was accompanied by a roast-beef buffet dinner – the first time I’d been at a buffet in two years – no lavender foam or frozen polenta, but good food and drink provided by friendly masked staff and volunteers.

Worth the drive!

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