Fable for One

Anyone who's ever worked behind the scenes of a snooty uptown eatery will recognize the deliciously nasty types roasted to perfection in the flames of Becky Mode's Fully Committed. All the usual suspects appear, including a power-crazed chef, a French maître d'hôtel and a handful of demanding New York dowagers. But there's also the unexpected oddballs like Naomi Campbell's annoyingly cheerful assistant, a busboy with a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder, as well as an 84-year-old visiting "senior citizen" who wants her AARP discount. Every one of these characters is a hysterical addition to Mode's 90-minute joyride through the tony world of haute dining.

Laugh-out-loud funny as the writing often is, none of it would amount to much if the central actor weren't as fearless as Jamison Stern. Mode's script is a one-man show of gargantuan proportions. All the weirdos and megalomaniacs who inhabit this rarefied restaurant world, in which assistants call from as far away as Kuwait to confirm reservations, are played by Stern. Directed with a deft hand by Rob Bundy, Stern morphs his way through the Alley's tasty production, creating an amazing array of individuals, using no more than a twist of his eyebrows and a wave of his magical hands.

The prime character is the immensely likable Sam, an out-of-work actor who's reduced to answering phones alone at one of New York's most sought-after restaurants. His dank metal desk is in the basement among discards. And the day we meet him, he's imprisoned through one long lunch rush with no relief in sight.

Other characters enter his hell via the telephone, and Stern is devastatingly funny at holding up both ends of the conversation. He flips from earnest and infinitely patient to the highbrow wife of a "VVVIP" with the turn of his wrist. One minute he's downtrodden, trying like mad to find a name in the reservation book, and the next -- when Sam agrees to change the light bulbs to pink at a model's dinner table -- he's her happy assistant chirping, "Thanks a gazillion!" Jamison is so skilled with the multiple roles that the entire conceit of one actor playing every part quickly disappears in the immediacy of the moment. Stern makes us believe in each of the characters even as we grow more and more fond of Sam.

Some of the funniest characters work in the busy restaurant buzzing above Sam's lowly head. They repeatedly call downstairs with a multitude of demands. "Chef," an infantile tyrant of the first order, barks orders like a tiny Stalin. "What the fuck do you want?" he screams when Sam calls with a question. But Chef also begs to know how many VIPs are on the reservation list.

His eyes light up with sneering meanness when he makes a food critic wait for hours, but whines like a child when he discovers that fed-up Sam doesn't really like all his recipes. They include such bizarre dishes as "tureen of head cheese." Making sure the whole place runs smoothly is Jean Claude, the oily, womanizing maître d' who can't bring himself to speak to one irate customer because "She's so ugly. She has a face like a catfish." And then there's Stephanie, the sweetly bubble-headed hostess who forgets to tell Sam when the "staff meal" is ready, making our hero work his shift on an empty stomach.

An elegant Mode strategy is the way she lets us know what's up with Sam in his life outside the restaurant. We learn about his acting career from Jerry, Sam's "friend" who calls to taunt him with every one of his small successes. In his family life, his father wants Sam home for Christmas though the restaurant probably won't let him off. Sam's ordinary and very real life adds an element of sanity and makes everyone else's demands that much more absurd.

"Fully committed" turns out to be the phrase Sam is instructed to use instead of the more gauche "all booked up." But it's also where many of the characters who flounce through this wonderfully silly world of narcissists ought to be.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams