The one-man show (or one-woman) is a very specific art form, and the skills needed are a world apart from even a two-hander. Unless the show is a frightfully long monologue to a probably empty theatre, the performer is generally required to move seamlessly between a dizzying number of characters. It’s not just voice, but posture and facial expression which must signify shifts between characters, and it’s a marathon for the actor.
The archetypal Canadian example is Rod Beattie, whose manifestation of every person to cross the threshold of Wingfield Farm is embedded in the DNA of Canadian theatregoers (by way of partial non sequitur, am I the only one who didn’t know that Beattie is still touring the Wingfield plays?).
It isn’t every actor, or every director, who can do justice to the genre, and in that sense, it serves as a bit of a test to separate the wheat from the chaff. But in Fully Committed, actor Griffin Cork and director Chris Stockton have proven that they should be counted among the big guns in town. I would venture to say that this show might be the best thing on local stages at the moment.
Primarily, Cork plays Sam, who makes his living answering the reservations line at Manhattan’s hottest restaurant, and stickhandling a variety of bizarre requests from dozens of callers (each of them played by Cork). He is hidden away in the basement of the restaurant with his phone, and communicates with the other restaurant staff (Cork) via an old intercom on the wall. The chef and owner of the restaurant (also Cork) hands down his decrees via a dedicated red emergency phone. Sam must gracefully deal with this barrage of demands as his own personal life frequently intrudes.
Our hero is a currently-between-roles actor, and is up for a part in a show at Lincoln Centre.
A few callers greet him with, “I didn’t know you were still working there,” which becomes an embittering refrain as he faces the potential of another in a series of rejections. Curtis, the assistant to Sam’s agent, tells him that the feedback from auditions is that he doesn’t come across as sufficiently “entitled.” This is juxtaposed with a call from Bryce from Naomi Campbell’s office, who wants to know how close her booked table is to a light fixture, and offers to send over some new light bulbs to switch out so that her lighting won’t be so harsh.
Sam is increasingly harried as the one-act progresses and he is subjected to a parade of ludicrous commands. By the time he’s asked to leave the phones to come and clean the women’s washroom in the restaurant after a guest has become ill, Cork is out of breath and literally mopping sweat from his brow.
Part of creating 40 fully realized characters is to give voice to a variety of accents, and Cork shifts fluidly from Kentucky to Scotland to the Bronx. Local dialect coach Jane MacFarlane is thanked in the program, and if she is responsible for the ease with which Cork manages the accents, it might be some of her best work. Stockton’s staging conveys a sense of urgency without being needlessly frenetic, and he and Cork have given the text a rhythm that offers occasional welcome respite from the commotion.
Playwright Becky Mode updated the text and staging for the Broadway version in 2016 starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and this is the original 1999 version of the script, but unless you’re a rabid foodie, it doesn’t suffer from a few slightly dated references. There are some glitches in execution (one or two verbal stumbles, and occasionally the wrong phone rang on the night I saw it), but these are small details in a thoroughly enjoyable production.
I’m forming the strong impression that Birnton Theatricals is a company to watch. From Neil LaBute’s Shape of Things in 2017-18 (not an easy text) to last season’s I and You by Lauren Gunderson and the wacky one-act musical [title of show], artistic director Chris Stockton chooses proven audience favourites with solid pedigrees, but new to local audiences and intriguing showcases for young talent. I’d suggest keeping an eye on this group if you’re looking for a new theatre experience.
(Photo of Griffin Cork in Fully Committed courtesy Birnton Theatricals.)
Fully Committed by Birnton Theatricals plays at Lunchbox Theatre until October 5.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.