I want a table, and I want it now

Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)
Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

And I thought I had it bad.

During the two years I waited tables, my worst experience came when our cook fell off the wagon and showed up drunk. When the lunchtime crowd arrived, I had to keep dropping off orders in the kitchen even though I knew it was like dropping them down a well. I then had to make excuses to our customers about why their burgers and Reubens never seemed to materialize.

But all that was a walk in the park compared what Sam goes through in Fully Committed. Working the reservation desk at an exclusive New York restaurant, the would-be actor regularly has to put up with an egotistical chef, an uncooperative maître d’ and self-important customers who make impossible demands.

Written by Becky Mode, the one-man play follows Sam on a particularly difficult day. A co-worker has failed to show up, leaving Sam to deal with all the crazies on his own. Adding to the pressure, his father keeps calling and asking if he’s coming home for Christmas. Plus, another actor makes frequent calls whose apparent purpose is to rub his own success in Sam’s face.

One of my quibbles with a show like this—in which one person plays a plethora of roles—is that many of the characters invariably come off as stereotypes. It’s hard not to fall back on ethnic clichés in such a situation, especially if your aim is to provoke laughs.

In CATCO’s production, however, actor Jeff Horst and director Steven Anderson avoid taking that easy route. Sure, the chef is a haughty Brit and the maître d’ is a snooty Frenchman, but the 40 or so characters seldom fit into overused pigeonholes. They may not be as grittily believable as Michael S. Brewer’s messy set, but they’re far from one-note creations.

“Fully committed,” by the way, means a restaurant is completed booked, but it also describes an actor who invests himself totally in his characters. That’s something Horst does many times over.

Particularly memorable are the AWOL co-worker, who exudes an oily Jack Nicholson-like aura; the gangster who caresses himself while speaking in a voice filled with menace and power; and Sam’s folksy father, who is too self-effacing to admit how desperately he wants his son to come home for the holidays.

And then there’s Sam himself, who seems to have inherited his dad’s decency. Or maybe he’s decided that being calm and diplomatic is the only way to survive in a job that regularly requires him to walk through a minefield filled with explosive egos.

Whatever his motivation, he manages to keep himself together through most of his hectic day, but he eventually starts to lose his equilibrium. And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Until then, truthfully, this supposed comedy is more annoying than funny, with characters who are as unpleasant as the constantly ringing phones. For much of its running time, the show’s main draw is the opportunity to see Horst earn his keep in what reportedly is his first role as a member of Actors’ Equity.

But that should be enough for many viewers. After all, Horst’s performance, even more than his union card, proves that he’s a full-fledged professional.

CATCO will present Fully Committed through Nov. 24 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $45, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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‘Dream play’ reflects a boomer’s worst nightmare

Simon (Nick Baldasare, right) tells his troubles to his therapist (Jeff Horst) in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)
Simon (Nick Baldasare, right) tells his troubles to his therapist (Jeff Horst) in The Promised Land (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

Simon can’t quite bring himself to go to work. He just can’t shake the premonition that something bad is about to happen.

As it turns out, his premonition is correct. His boss is getting ready to “restructure” him out of the job to which he’s devoted more than 20 years of his life.

Thus begins The Promised Land, a comedy about a baby boomer’s worst nightmare.

The one-act is the latest work from local playwright Bill Cook. Like Cook’s 2012 offering Love in an Age of Clamor, this is the story of a middle-aged man facing a sudden loss. At age 55—too early to retire but too late to be attractive to many employers—the financial analyst finds himself back on the job market.

Also like Clamor, The Promised Land is devised as a “dream play,” meaning it’s a fast-moving chain of events that don’t always resemble reality. There’s a subtle difference, though. Clamor was more or less surreal throughout, but The Promised Land has isolated moments of surrealism that are explained away as dreams or even hallucinations. The rest of the time, it’s more like a hyperactive version of real life.

Personally, I found the earlier approach more entertaining, but that’s partly because I’m a fan of surrealists such as 20th century Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Viewers who are more down-to-earth may feel otherwise.

In any case, both of Cook’s works share a playful approach that incorporates a slew of lively supporting roles. In the current production, Jeff Horst portrays all of them and makes the most of the opportunity. For instance, he incorporates witty bits of business as a potential employer who appears in two very different states of being—as a shot-downing bar patron and as his morning-after counterpart, who gulps down coffee like it’s crucial to his survival.

Director Joe Bishara also encourages Josie Merkle to stretch her acting muscles as Simon’s wife, especially during a (possibly) hallucinogenic scene in which she takes a job as a cocktail waitress.

As Simon, Nick Baldasare projects the appropriate amounts of confusion, terror and determination. He makes the job seeker a fairly sympathetic figure even though Simon doesn’t always behave in ways that will be relatable to many viewers. In particular, he exhibits an outdated patriarchal attitude toward Grace, as when she seeks to boost the household income by taking a job.

Add an ending that doesn’t quite wrap things up, and you have a play that fails to reach its full potential as a parable of contemporary paranoia. Fortunately, none of this prevents the comedy from scoring as a showcase for its talented cast.

A&B Theatricals will present The Promised Land at 8 p.m. today and Saturday (March 29-30) at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. in Downtown Columbus. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Tickets are $12, $8 for students. For reservations, visit brownpapertickets.com. For more information, visit ab-theatical.com.