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Role Playing

Michael Stebbins Doesn’t Phone in Solo Performance of Large Cast

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?: Michael Stebbins works the phones.

By John Barry | Posted 2/8/2006

If you’ve ever juggled professions to make ends meet, Fully Committed gives you a little optimism. And if you’ve ever spewed venom over the phone at some underpaid underling and asked to talk to the boss—immediately—the play helps you feel their pain. And finally, if you’ve been trampled, dismantled, condescended to, and gently exploited by the combined forces of families, so-called friends, cultural higher-ups, and all the other bastards out there, it might actually calm you down enough to avoid taking any drastic measures.

And if there’s a lesson to Becky Mode’s Fully Committed—and it certainly isn’t a play with much to say—it’s probably that, in the words of the main character’s agent, there’s a fine line between the losers and winners in this world: the sense of entitlement. Take that as you will in real life, but for this play to take off—with about 15 characters, all played by one actor—that actor needs to walk onto the stage with the sense that he owns it.

In his debut Rep Stage performance, the company’s new artistic director, Michael Stebbins, has that confidence in spades. And that’s great, because in the play’s opening moments, the audience doesn’t. The stage is cluttered, a phone incessantly rings, and Stebbins’ obviously artificial role-juggling leaves him on a high wire without any net at all. As the play opens, he picks up the phone and asks, “Good morning. Reservations. Can you hold please?” The play’s pattern is pretty much set.

It takes a few of these back-and-forths to get things rolling for the situation to shape itself. Sam Peliczowski is a down-and-out actor who works in the lower depths of haute cuisine. In a basement piled high with newspapers and files, he manages the hectic phones. The restaurant takes reservations two months in advance, leaving him negotiating with and placating the long line of socialites, Arab sheiks, Mafia families, and restaurant reviewers waiting to get in.

The plot owes more to interweaving than development, which can be explained by Mode’s HBO-heavy résumé and Fully Committed being her first play. But as Sam operates the switchboard, moving from one needy customer to the next, the characters gradually come to life. Carole Anne Rosenstein Fishburne demands to talk to the chef. Bryce, a lisping social secretary, demands an all-vegan tasting menu for 15. An Italian man with a New Jersey accent wants someone to sing “The Lady Is a Tramp” in honor of his parents’ anniversary. An 84-year-old woman calls and demands an AARP discount for the previous night’s meal. The individual story lines get increasingly convoluted and more interesting as the play progresses.

As the play moves along at a Seinfeld-on-speed pace you start wondering how it’s all going to wrap up. Though some one-person plays bare the soul, that isn’t what Mode intends. What starts out as a somewhat chaotic scenario turns, gradually, into a struggle with something a little bigger than the next customer. Ultimately, the switchboard operator turns into a puppet master, and Stebbins gives a technically flawless and occasionally jaw-dropping performance as he takes on the mass of characters. (The ones listed above are a fraction of the whole.) Acting virtuosity has its shallow side, but this display is measured, perfectly timed, and injects magic into characters who even the playwright has little patience for. Partial credit for that certainly goes to director Susan Kramer—and the production team for the split-second phone cues—but ultimately Fully Committed is all about Stebbins, and his Rep Stage debut is, well, pretty damn good.

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