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Switchboard soliloquy: Gatton in Fully Committed.

Without Reservations

By Ralph Hammann

Fully Committed

By Becky Mode, directed by Andrew Volkoff

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Nov. 18

Having a particular keenness for one-person plays, I have seen them performed by actors of such consummate skill and magnetism as James Whitmore, Vincent Price, Hal Holbrook, Ben Gazzara, Spalding Gray, Tony Lo Bianco, Christopher Plummer, Lily Tomlin, Robert Vaughn, Julie Harris, Henry Fonda, Roger Rees, Ian McKellen, Jack MacGowran, Billie Whitelaw and Leonard Nimoy—to name some of the more famous of the practitioners who took on theater’s ultimate challenge. There are dozens more, and for every skilled Whitmore there is a witless sophomore. The best ones often sweep the audience into the thrall of a story or autobiography told by one person who usually relates to a myriad of imagined characters who enter and exit the stage. Some scripts ask the solo actor to lend voices to several of these incorporeal visitors.

But I have never seen one that makes quite the demands of Fully Committed, which asks an actor to play Sam Peliczowski, who frantically mans the reservations phone at a popular New York City restaurant on a busy day when his two coworkers are absent. Not only must the actor create Sam and his growing grief and humiliation at the egos of his callers, but he must also create all of their voices, often in rapid fire with one phone call following another with nary a dial tone between. This amounts to memorizing about 90 minutes of near-non sequiturs.

Additionally, the lone actor must develop several converging plot strands and give voices to Sam’s friends, co-workers, agents (he is an out-of-work actor, of course) and his slightly needy father. Finally, there is the imperious boss, ‘Chef,’ an autocrat who insists that instead of saying that the restaurant is full or can take no more reservations, Sam inform callers that it is “fully committed.”

The whole show is an irresistible comedy of mounting hilarity as Sam’s situation becomes ever more dire. As in the best drama, we empathize completely with Sam in his state of desperation, and find ourselves willing him to avenge his dignity against the shrill or smarmy voices of what seems to be a society of entitlement. We meet such colorful types as a smiling Mafioso, a hapless Japanese woman with pained delivery, the nutso Bryce, the annoying Mrs. Seabag, the more-annoying Miss Fishbarn and the exasperating Bunny van de Veer. The fictitious are humorously merged with the real as even Mr. and Mrs. Zagat and Lincoln Center’s Bernard Gersten are drawn into the fray. Although the humor is plentiful and skillfully delivered by the fully committed Vince Gatton as Sam (and everyone else), much of the time I found myself simply in awe of Gatton’s accomplishment. Not only does he whisk through the complex material with startling fluidity, he also makes each character come alive in ways that surmount mere caricature. It is a marvel to watch him literally play a scene with himself and note with what dexterity he uses characters as foils to Sam’s development.

Gatton is supremely skilled at regional American dialects as well as a smorgasbord of foreign accents, but it’s the subtle strokes and nuances of character that ultimately put us under Gatton’s spell in which he becomes what all actors aspire to be—at one with his material. The effect is a seamless performance that is, at once, dazzling, engaging and exhilarating.

Gatton’s performance alone with a couple of phones would be enough to hold our attention, but through Brian Prather’s authentic basement setting, Jeff Davis’ invisibly dramatic lighting and Vincent Olivieri’s deft sound design, Barrington Stage has given Gatton a complete environment to inhabit with his multitude of voices.

Whitmore, Price, Holbrook, Gazzara, Gray . . . Add Gatton to the distinguished list.

Man not Monster

The Elephant Man

By Bernard Pomerance, directed by Kevin McGuire

Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, Through Dec. 2

Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man opened on Broadway in 1979 to great acclaim, including a Tony Award for best play. And rightly so. The script is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick (called John in historic accounts, and in the play), who suffered a severely debilitating and physically deforming disorder now known as Proteus syndrome, and was rescued from a life as a sideshow freak by Dr. Frederick Treves, who brought him to the London Hospital for care and study until Merrick’s death at age 27. Pomerance’s script is powerful—deceivingly simple in story and structure, yet dense with meaning, making it a challenging play to produce. While not without flaw, the current incarnation, offered by the Theater Company at Hubbard Hall under the direction of Kevin McGuire, infuses the story with humanity, warmth and honesty, encouraging the audience to question their own place in the continuum of cruelty and kindness.

The playing space at Hubbard Hall was established, not on the proscenium stage, but on the floor and occasionally in the balcony, the audience seating placed on risers backed against the proscenium. This creative use of the fairly small space, paired with the simple and symbolic set by Alley Morse, allowed for intimate and interactive staging by McGuire.

The set comprises two central elements, a single circus ring where the bulk of the action takes place, and a rolling metal-framed platform, curtained and canopied with light white cloth, the words “Fruit of Our Original Sin” stenciled on a valance. This platform serves as both Merrick’s sideshow cage, and his four-poster bed in London, a choice which suggests that Merrick never ceased to be on display, that he was never truly free. The central circus ring served as an effective staging device and further echoed the sense that is no escaping the circus—literally for Merrick, and figuratively for all involved.

The action of the play transitions between the sideshow, the London lecture hall, and Merrick’s room at the hospital. Creative staging carries the audience to each of these locales—the play’s audience become the sideshow audience, becomes the lecture audience—voyeurs only of the private moments in Merrick’s room. It is in these moments, particularly the intimate, two-person scenes in the second act of the play, where the production shines.

Doug Ryan brings a wide-eyed sense of childlike innocence and warmth to Merrick, humanizing the “monster” with wit and intelligence. Though Merrick’s torment is sometimes underplayed, his naiveté develops the reflective quality of many of Merrick’s questions as he attempts to learn the intricacies of society and its rules. Ryan’s physical representation of Merrick’s deformities is subdued, but sufficient.

The most poignant moments of the production occur in the scenes between Merrick and his two chief teachers of culture, Dr. Treves and Mrs. Kendal, who in turn become Merrick’s students of humanity. Yvonne Perry’s portrayal of Mrs. Kendal is spot on: bold yet sensitive, at once sensual and maternal. Her unfolding openness with Merrick is brave, modest and carefully nuanced. John Hadden deftly portrays Treves’ downfall. His connection with Merrick, his frustration and sense of futility and loss culminate in a powerful moment, in which Treves takes on Merrick’s debilitating physicalities. But he needed to fall farther. Hadden does not fully establish Treves’ confidence, competence and success in the first half of the play—a problem that is exacerbated by an ill-fitting period suit, which makes him look slightly disheveled and out of his element.

The supporting cast is challenged by quick and constant role-doubling. The doubled casting is meaningfully thought out—single actors play multiple characters whose responses to Merrick are near polar opposites—an effective tool for expressing the conflicting reactions of curiosity, cruelty, revulsion, charity and kindness that exist in everyone. The rapid doubling leads to sometimes melodramatic, caricatured versions of the peripheral characters. Though McGuire, who not only directs the production, but also portrays hospital manager Carr Gomm, offers a discreetly tender, regimented bureaucrat, and Eric Barnum brings a richly changed Ross, Merrick’s sideshow manager, to the second act.

The first act of the production would benefit from being tighter and more stylized. Pomerance’s script is carefully structured with a highly impersonal lack of connection between the characters in the first act. It is, in part, this chasm that makes the intimacy of the second act. Although McGuire’s director’s note mentions his recognition of the Brechtian nature of the script, his blocking and lighting choices are not strong enough to create a fierce sense of separation.

It is, in the end, the intimate moments that give the production life, and in these moments, the Theater Company at Hubbard Hall excels.

—Kathryn Lange

 


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