Fully Committed is a play about conversations: Truncated, maddening, sometimes amusing conversations -- the kind we all have every day with total strangers we'd probably rather not be talking to in the first place. The difference here is that the conversations are all held by one person, an actor in a one-man show who juggles 40 different characters and doesn't stop talking for 90 minutes.
Playwright Becky Mode might well have written her off-Broadway smash specifically for Phoenix funny man Bob Sorenson, who's starring in Arizona Theatre Company's production of Fully Committed. Sorenson answers the phone in his own voice, then shifts accents and becomes the caller as well -- the kind of goofy spiel that is this actor's strong suit.
Sorenson is Sam, a young actor toiling at his day job as a reservations clerk at an unnamed Manhattan restaurant. He's trapped in a dank basement office, taking and refusing reservations and sometimes dialing his agent to inquire about a callback. His co-worker has failed to show up, leaving Sam to man the phones alone. He takes three and four calls at a time, mostly from stupid, impatient people who won't believe that the restaurant is "fully committed" for the next several weeks. The rest of the time, Sam argues with his boss, a bigheaded chef who never seems to be in the kitchen but always seems to be in a snit, and soothes several other equally horrible employees.
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There's very little logic to all this, and only a small story buried here, one that gives us the tiniest glimpse of the character we're spending the evening with: Sam would like to go home for Christmas, to visit his father who's still mourning the recent death of Sam's mother. We like him not so much because he's strong or kind or funny, but because he's the only person onstage, and we like Sorenson -- as usual -- for his technical prowess. In quick succession, and with only a shift in timbre and pitch, he voices a shrieking Brooklyn socialite, an oily mobster, and Naomi Campbell's effeminate assistant, all the while juggling phones and pulling piles of funny faces.
It's important that the characters are clearly defined and different enough from one another in order for us to follow the story, and Sorenson nails each persona. Rather than confining the actor to what's on the page, director David Ira Goldstein wisely allows Sorenson to infuse his performance with many of his own vocal tricks.
"There's no room to ad lib," Sorenson told me last week between rehearsals, "because every line and every action is predicated by a phone ringing or an intercom buzzing. There's no safety net if you forget your place in the script, because there's no other actor onstage to feed you your next line."
There is, however, an actor waiting in the wings. Michelle Gardner is standing by as Sorenson's understudy, ready to transform Sam into Samantha should Sorenson get hit by a truck between shows.
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It's Gardner's first stage job since she left Phoenix last year for Los Angeles to pursue a career in television (she's since appeared on Ally McBeal and Lifetime's Strong Medicine). She seems amused that she's returning to her hometown not as a star, but as an understudy.
"I'm not hanging my head because I'm back in town but not headlining," she says with some sincerity. "It's been a great break from the pace of my life in L.A., where I'm running to auditions and everything goes a hundred miles an hour. I get to work for ATC, which I've always wanted to do; and I get to work with Bob, which is always great. And I get to look back on the last year and say, 'Is it worth it to work at Starbucks, just so I can be on TV shows?'"
Whether it's Sorenson or Gardner (who will perform the show in an April 11 matinee), the program's unseen co-star is stage manager Glenn Bruner, who's responsible for the sack full of sound cues that move the piece along. In fact, the show moves so quickly that, if there's a character or exchange we don't care for, it's gone in a matter of seconds and we're on to the next.
If there's a problem with this piece, it's that Sam is buried so deeply beneath his own wisecracking that we're left to love only the frantic humor of the piece. Happily, Sorenson makes the most of Mode's cacophonous characters and silly sight gags, transforming a roomful of voices into a worthwhile entertainment.