According to Microsoft’s 2017 State of Global Customer Service Report, the most frustrating part of a customer service experience is reaching an automated telephone system. And with a play like Becky Mode’s Fully Committed, now playing at the Alley Theatre, you have to wonder if that’s only because it’s a lot more satisfying to yell at a person than a machine.
In Fully Committed, it’s just another day at the office for Sam, an aspiring actor working as a reservationist in a trendy, upscale New York restaurant. Or it is until he walks into his basement office to find it empty. One co-worker is having car trouble and waiting on a tow (or so he says), and another just found out her father has lupus, meaning it’s up to Sam to man the call center.
The calls come in fast and furious from an interesting collection of people, the type who would frequent a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy, with a menu that includes phrases like “scent pillow,” “edible dirt,” and “infused with pipe tobacco,” and a price tag of $250 to $300. Sam fields the calls as best he can – last-minute reservation requests, complaints, even a request to sing Sinatra at a mobster’s parents’ anniversary party – while worrying about his career (his frenemy Jerry just got a callback and Sam hasn’t), his finances (the one non-callback message Sam’s got is an ominous Time Warner warning about his service being cut), and whether or not he can go home for Christmas.
Alone, hungry, and in need of a bathroom break, it only gets worse for Sam when Heston Blumenthal, the chef’s mentor, arrives with no reservation in the system, and another patron has an accident in the men’s room that someone will have to clean. Three guesses who that might be.
The world Mode establishes in Fully Committed is harried and funny, with Sam’s frantically beating heart at the center. Really, Mode certainly captures aspects of a call center (I know, today it’s usually referred to as a “contact center”), particularly the kind where you still hear phantom rings when you go home. Mode’s chaos is perfectly plotted and director Brandon Weinbrenner’s style complements the script well, drawing every possible snort, giggle and outright guffaw from the audience while still allowing the more emotional beats room to resonate. And the mean to this end is the man of the hour in this one-act, Dylan Godwin.
Godwin super-speeds through a range of characters – each with their own distinct voice and mannerisms. Luckily, he possesses an expressively elastic face and it’s clear he’s more than ready to show off a full repertoire of voices with perfectly varied rhythms, phrasing, and emphasis.
There’s, of course, Sam, who’s starting to buckle under stress. The frat boy-like celebrity chef who doesn’t know who Diane Sawyer is and who crotch chops like he’s in D-Generation X. Sam’s proud (if a little awkward) father, who Godwin gives a clear, deliberate voice with a splash of Midwest reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart (minus the stuttery pauses, of courses). There’s Oscar, with a molasses-y Gomer Pyle voice; Jean-Claude, the French maître d' with an extra capital F; and Hector, a medium-heavy accented Latino in the kitchen, spitting out words like papi and pendejo.
Though Godwin helps indicate the switch between characters with a turn on his heel, the spin of a chair, and the lowering and raising of a handset (and the occasional prop, such as a compact or pill organizer), he’s actually doing the heavy lifting of bolding and italicizing each caller’s personality with his voice, face and body.
Some are a little more voice (like Sam’s nasally brother or a caller from Sam’s hometown who sounds like he has a “permanent cold”). Some are a touch more body (such as the crouched posture he gives Heston Blumenthal). Some are a great balance of both. For one early caller, Godwin breaks out a breathy voice while hopping up on a desk and twisting and thrusting, posing and sliding. Then there’s the 86-year-old Judith Rush, who yells like she’s in a ravine, brittle with a laundry list of ailments and a walker, which is actually a chair Godwin maneuvers around the stage.
Godwin’s playground is designed by Kevin Rigdon, and Rigdon’s office set is the epitome of a perfectly realized afterthought – just like probably every non-corporate office that houses phone staff is. The furniture is mix-and-match at its finest; no two chairs or tables are alike. It’s cluttered with everything this type of basement office needs (hand sanitizer, heater, coffee pot and coffee-related paraphernalia) and papered with a number of signs saying “no reservations from Ned Finlay” or simply “no Ned Finlay” (and yes, they pay off). And of course, phones on every desk, and one Cold War-style red phone, a direct line to the chef.
Though the majority of the action is in the round, the set feels larger due to two extra sections diagonal from each other. At one corner of the theater is a spiral staircase entrance to the office and at the other corner, a brick office-office space, with a file cabinet and yes, one more red spray-painted warning about Ned Finlay. Though the restaurant may have one, no part of this office has a strict dress code so Erica Griese’s costume design – a straightforward plaid and corduroy combo – fits right in. Rigdon was also sure to sprinkle Christmas around the set in the form of lights, a mini-tree, a stocking, wreath and seasonal mug because, you know, the play and alternative holiday programming.
Though the light design, also by Rigdon, is pretty straightforward, the mini-Christmas disco he and sound designer Bradley Jay Gowers are responsible for is in-your-face seasonal. With flashing red and green lights, music, and ambient noise from the unseen upstairs restaurant, it’s a striking almost-intermission moment in the play. Gowers certainly deserves a hand for not only this, but the well-timed effects and the punk rock carols that set the stage as audience members walk in. Those songs went an unexpectedly long way in setting both tone and pace for the whole production.
So, it turns out the Alley’s got you covered this holiday season whether you want something old or something new-ish (Fully Committed premiered in 1999). It’s certainly funny and there’s something undeniably special about seeing one performer “fully commit,” if you will, to dozens of characters in under an hour-and-a-half.
But one thing. No one worth their salt in a call center would give out other patrons’ names and reservation times to a stranger. Head shake of disapproval.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Through December 29. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $47 to $62.