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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Hoping to spell their way to happiness

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

A confession: I was disappointed when I heard CATCO had booked The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for its new season.

That was partly because I’d rather see Columbus’s premier troupe tackle works that aren’t quite so familiar. Mostly, though, it was because I’d seen a touring production come through town several years back and hadn’t fallen in love with it.

But you know what they say about love being better the second time around? Maybe that also applies to this quirky musical. Thanks to CATCO’s personable production, I now love both it and its nerdy characters.

With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos), Spelling Bee is like a comedic and tuneful version of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Like the film, it delves into the personalities of the young contestants in an attempt to explain how they became spelling whizzes and why parlaying their skills into victory is so important to them.

It could be that director Steven Anderson’s long submergence in children’s theater has served him well here, because his production’s greatest strength is its ability to turn each of the competitors into a recognizably and lovably eccentric individual.

Early laughs are won by Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Walters), whose behavior is even odder than his helmeted and caped attire. Also attracting our attention is the Korean-American Marcy Park (Nicolette Montana), who only later reveals why she seems annoyed by the whole event.

The richest portrayals are provided by Japheal Bondurant as the plus-sized William Barfee—whose haughtiness could well be both a reflection of his brilliance and a defense against an often-hostile world—and Elisabeth Zimmerman as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky. Played by Zimmerman with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a lovely voice, Olive reveals the direness of her situation in the show’s most touching number, The I Love You Song.

Also taking part in the competition are Chip Tolentino (James Sargent), whose struggle to repeat last year’s victory is complicated by his dictatorial libido, and Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Emily Turner), whose gay fathers encourage her to win at any cost.

Four pre-selected audience members play additional competitors and frequently come in for witty and personalized jibes from the spelling bee’s hosts, Rona Lisa Peretti (Krista Lively-Stauffer) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ralph E. Scott). Panch, by the way, has many of the show’s funniest lines—which usually follow the question “Can you use it in a sentence?”—and Scott delivers them with deadpan perfection.

The cherry on the show’s comical sundae is Mitch Mahoney (Geoffrey Martin), a scruffy ex-con who was sentenced to perform community service by acting as the competition’s “comfort counselor.”

Michael S. Brewer’s set design captures the look of a school auditorium right down to the cinder-block walls and the “Putnam Piranhas” wall signs. A band led by Matt Clemens is a spirited presence despite being hidden backstage.

With tuneful tunes, heartfelt performances and more laugh-out-loud moments than you can shake a dictionary at, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is simply irresistible.

CATCO will present The Twentieth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Aug. 18 in Studio One, 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: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Fridays and Saturdays, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. Student tickets are available for $15 two hours before non-sold-out performances. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.