WATERTOWN — Turns out Sartre was right. Hell is other people.
Especially if they are Very Important People, or consider themselves as such, and they’re on the other end of the telephone line, clamoring for a hard-to-get table at a four-star restaurant in Manhattan, and you are a reservations clerk who has to cope with their nutso demands.
From this premise the playwright Becky Mode constructed “Fully Committed,’’ a solo comedy of desperation that is now at New Repertory Theatre in a hectic, highly entertaining production directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary and starring Gabriel Kuttner.
In terms of atmosphere and pace, O’Leary’s production of “Fully Committed’’ is equal parts “The Devil Wears Prada’’ (an underling is ground beneath the heel of a tyrannical boss who eventually proves vulnerable) and “Modern Times’’ (think of Chaplin struggling to keep up with that factory assembly line).
“Fully Committed’’ is the latest instance of a shrewd use by the New Rep of the company’s Black Box Theater for punchy, small-scale works that showcase talented actors. It follows last season’s Black Box production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings,’’ which offered a powerful trio of linked monologues by Adrianne Krstasnky, Joel Colodner, and Christine Power, and Georgia Lyman’s exceptional solo turn last month in Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake.’’
Kuttner, too, delivers a virtuoso performance, playing the reservations clerk and dozens of other characters. He did a production of “Fully Committed’’ two years ago at Christian Herter Park, and it’s clear that he knows, in a bone-deep way, the hapless yet determined protagonist, Sam Peliczowski.
The rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of Sam’s speech contrast with his beleaguered expression; his movements are frantic and weary at the same time. He is an unemployed actor who’s working at the restaurant to make ends meet, and it’s clearly been a while between acting gigs; he keeps calling his agent, but he can’t get past the assistant.
“You do tend to convey a certain lack of . . . entitlement,” the amusingly haughty minion tells Sam. Wording aside, that’s true. You keep hoping Sam will eventually get a chance to, no pun intended, turn the tables.
But there he is, trapped in a small office (rendered to grimy, cluttered perfection by set designer Deb Sullivan, who also designed the lighting), a headset fastened to his skull, trying to figure out a way to get a day or two off so he can get home to the Midwest for a Christmas visit with his widowed father.
If only that damn phone would stop ringing. But it never does, and the fun lies in seeing Kuttner play all the other parts, all those self-interested, self-important people who are conspiring to make Sam’s life a living . . . well, you know. Expertly marshaling an array of accents and attitudes, Kuttner alternates rapidly between Sam and the dozens of characters who inundate him with telephonic requests, abuse, advice, threats, complaints, and bribe offers.
Much of the abuse he suffers comes from the restaurant’s imperious chef, who has made his reputation with $200-a-dish “global fusion’’ cuisine and who speaks in the accent of Michael Caine, if Michael Caine were in the foulest imaginable mood. Then there is Naomi Campbell’s personal assistant, who emphasizes that no female wait staff are to be allowed to serve the supermodel and informs Sam that some of the restaurant’s lights will have to be replaced by more Naomi-flattering ones. There is a name-dropping Park Avenue socialite who absolutely has to have a certain table, and a mobster who insists that the wait staff sing “The Lady Is a Tramp’’ to his parents (Kuttner channels Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone).
For all its laughs, and there are quite a few, “Fully Committed’’ has a point or two to make about our culture’s obsession with social status and the erosion of simple human decency in the workplace — and the world beyond, where we’ve gotten far too comfortable with the notion of haves, have-nots, and hierarchies. Sam is decidedly a have-not; what he has in abundance is job stress. It can be said, without any reservations whatsoever, that he’s got a lot of company in that.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.