soliloquy: Gatton in Fully Committed.
Becky Mode, directed by Andrew Volkoff
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Nov.
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
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.
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
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
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