Five people in a basement may not seem like the makings of a professional performance of a play, but this is the pandemic era.
Those five and that basement were what it took to produce the George Street Playhouse virtual presentation of Becky Mode’s comedy “Fully Committed,” starring Maulik Pancholy.
The show will be available for streaming from Tuesday, March 23 through April 11.
All right, there were plenty of others behind the scenes. But, in the end, bringing this play to virtual life came down to Pancholy, director David Saint, a stage manager, a videographer, and a sound tech to capture the frenetic laugher in which the one actor plays more than 40 characters.
The central figure in the play, which has been updated since it appeared in 1999, is Sam, an aspiring actor who takes reservations at an absurdly upscale and avant-garde Manhattan restaurant.
He works in the scruffy basement beneath the restaurant, taking an endless stream of phone calls from unreasonable patrons, the maître’ d, the head chef, an AWOL colleague, and Sam’s father, who wishes his son could get time off to be home for Christmas.
Sam is the only reservation taker who has shown up for work, so he rushes from phone to phone, explaining the policy— “On the sixth day of every month, the third month out opens up for reservations”—to folks who are, after all, special and want a table on demand. “I’m sorry, but we’re fully committed,” he explains again and again, using the pompous term for “booked up.”
Meanwhile, he tries to navigate the internal politics of the restaurant staff, manage his “real” career, avoid dealing with a disgusting accident in the men’s room, and stay in the good graces of his dad—one of the few sympathetic people he encounters that day.
Pancholy—an Ohio-born actor, writer, and human-rights activist—plays Sam and voices all of the other characters in lightning-like succession.
He comes to this role with a track record of Broadway, television, and film performances.
Until now, however, he has not done a professional play in which he is the only actor, and the challenge wasn’t lost on him.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Ninety pages of just me? How are we ever going to pull this off? Coming off this year when there has been zero live theater came this opportunity to go from zero to sixty. I had a little pause about it.”
But the pause didn’t last, and Pancholy found himself playing dozens of characters who are often having highly charged interactions. “It was a little like having multiple personalities,” he said.
Pancholy said he and David Saint, George Street’s artistic director, tried to be as specific as possible about each of the characters—“who they were, how they moved through the world, where they were calling from..”
Besides props and details of the set décor, Pancholy, said, he employed voice pitch and accents to project men and women, some of whom are New Yorkers and some of whom are from “out of town.”
Like the first play in this virtual season, “Bad Dates,” this one was rehearsed and recorded in a house made available by a member of the playhouse board of directors.
The house has a spacious basement, Pancholy said, but the set is designed to suggest the claustrophobic conditions in which Sam works as well as providing small spaces in which some of the other characters can have their moments.
Although this a comedy, its darker implications have not been lost on audiences or critics, nor on Pacholy.
“It’s an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ kind of play,” he said, referring to the television series about an aristocratic British home—the aristocrats above stairs and the servants below. “Upstairs is a beautiful place filled with people who vied to get reservations at the hottest restaurant in New York City. Below are these reservations clerks giving people access to this space that they don’t have access to.”
More particularly, Pacholy said, he can relate to Sam’s predicament.
“I’ve been an actor with a day job. I’ve worked office jobs and restaurants. I’ve answered phones. I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re invisible. Sam is trying to find a little agency in this play, being able to stand up for himself.”
Pancholy also noted that many people who work in the service industry have been unemployed for a long time because of the pandemic.
“When we get to go back to a nice restaurant and sit inside and be with our friends, we should think about all those people who are working to make these experiences possible.”
Sam’s conversations with his father are also timely, Pancholy said.
“Sam is a human being. He has a family. He wants to see his dad for Christmas. It’s easy to relate to, especially when you think about how family has become so important when so many of us have not been able to see our families.
“The title is ‘Fully Committed,’ and so many of us during this time when we’ve been unable to see people have thought about what our priorities are, about what we are fully committed to. I think that’s part of Sam’s journey in this play.”
The George Street Playhouse 2021 Season of streaming plays is now on sale for $132 per household. Household tickets the plays in this streaming season can be purchased for $33 at GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org. Each subscriber household will receive a unique link to view each performance. Subscription packages are available by calling 732-659-0377.