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Duty Calls 

Theater Review: Fully Committed at Lost Nation Theater

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Pity the plight of the starry-eyed young actor. How does he chase the dream of becoming a professional thespian while keeping up with mundane, yet mandatory, pursuits such as eating and paying the phone bill? Working in a restaurant seems like the easy answer, especially when he’s trying to make it big in the American mecca of drama and dining: New York City.

Fully Committed (1999) posits that a job in the food biz may pay the bills, but it sure ain’t easy. The one-man show chronicles a day in the life of Sam, an actor who handles phone reservations for an “it” eatery in Manhattan. It’s a very bad day: Sam faces demanding clientele and demeaning superiors, while dealing with sensitive family and career concerns. In the Lost Nation production, Eric Love is mesmerizing as Sam — and 40 other characters — in director Tara Lee Downs’ funny, fast-paced and nearly flawless production.

Playwright Becky Mode and Mark Setlock — the actor who helped develop the script and first performed the show — based the crazy assemblage of characters on their experiences toiling at a tony Tribeca restaurant. Their insiders’ account evokes a circle of hell that Dante might carve into a modern version of The Inferno.

Twentysomething thespian Sam, recently transplanted from the Midwest, finds himself in the cramped, detritus-strewn basement storage room of a “ridiculously trendy” Upper East Side dining spot. Because his coworkers are AWOL, he mans the reservations “desk” (a rickety table) alone. He juggles ceaselessly ringing phone lines and a constantly buzzing intercom.

The restaurant’s staff, safely ensconced upstairs, use Sam as secretary, go-between and scapegoat. He books the foul-mouthed chef’s helicopter, covers for snooty maitre’d Jean-Claude, who is ducking an irksome client’s calls, and takes the fall when that Mr. Zagat arrives unexpectedly for lunch.

Mostly, Sam manages the great expectations of egotistical eaters, from swank socialites to minor mobsters. Many want tables for nights that are already overbooked — “fully committed” is the management-approved euphemism. Naomi Campbell’s highly amped assistant, Bryce, repeatedly calls to refine the supermodel’s super-specific requirements. “She definitely needs an all-vegan tasting menu,” he chirps. “That’s a no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy tasting menu for 15, OK?”

Trapped at his post, Sam debates peeing into an empty Starbucks cup. He barely squeezes in time to check with his agent, and to return his dad’s calls about whether he can get a day off to come home for Christmas.

Eric Love brings boundless energy to playing Sam and the bedlam of characters he battles during his doozy of a day. Most of the dialogue consists of quick conversations that frequently get interrupted. Love creates such a distinct array of voices that you could follow the show with your eyes closed.

He fashions striking speech patterns that define personalities. Jean-Claude eez a French bag of douche; Bunny Vandevere, quite the upper-crusty snob. But Love never resorts to ludicrous caricatures. Credit dialect coaches Christopher Scheer and John D. Alexander for helping him shape believable yet amusing accents. Love also emphasizes tone and tempo in his vocal delivery. For example, bubbly Bryce probably speaks his bright, slightly rushed lines with an edge because, if he fails Naomi, she’ll add his nonvegan nuts to her tasting menu.

The physical mannerisms, gestures and quirks Love executes with aplomb also make the characters memorable. Sam’s laconic dad hitches his thumbs in his pants pockets and paces slowly during father-son chats. A disgruntled senior hunches over her imagined walker as she carps and complains.

Director Downs demonstrates a keen eye for action that fleshes out character. In less skilled hands, the script’s broad comedy and meteoric pace could yield a whiplash-worthy sequence of farcical vignettes. But Downs develops Sam’s character fully, and focusing on his story arc gives the play heart.

Ellen E. Jones crafts a cluttered, claustrophobic set that intensifies Sam’s feeling of confinement. A relatively small, square platform limits the playing area. The painted floor resembles worn tiles of black-and-white linoleum. Overstuffed shelves, broken equipment and liquor boxes litter the dingy room. The only free floor space is a narrow path around the phone-laden table, which Sam circles restlessly.

The tyranny of the endlessly ringing telephone truly tethers Sam to his basement netherworld. The clever cacophony of Nicole Carroll’s sound design vividly underscores the story. She researched, recorded and programmed the 80-minute play’s 150 (!) sound cues. They unfurl at a rapid-fire pace and sync seamlessly with Love’s lines.

Kudos go also to stage manager Caroline Hill, who ensures that cues match perfectly during each performance. She makes split-second adjustments, if necessary, from the sound and light board. At Saturday’s matinee, not a single br-r-r-ing or bz-z-z-z was out of place.

Last year at LNT, Love displayed virtuosic multicharacter chops in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Since then, he has moved to the Big Apple, where he’s acting, directing and, um, working at a restaurant. With any luck, this talented thespian won’t be taking appetizer orders for too long.

Want to see for yourself?

Fully Committed, directed by Tara Lee Downs, produced by Lost Nation Theater. City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier. August 12-22, Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday, August 15, at 7 p.m, and Sunday, August 22, at 2 p.m. $20-25.

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