Produced by PURE Theatre
Dec. 2-6, 9-13, 17-20, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 14, 2 p.m.
Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting St.
For a play that Rodney Lee Rogers describes as “a little light” and “at the very edge of what we would do,” Becky Mode’s one-man Fully Committed keeps finding its way onto PURE Theatre’s calendar.
PURE’s first staging of the piece came five years ago: The fledgling company had collected critical acclaim during its first season, but still hadn’t found its audience, and as 2003 rounded December toward the new year, Rogers was giving knock-out performances of the play to almost empty houses.
“Lobby Hero (PURE’s first production) was a great show, but maybe 100 people saw it,” says Sharon Graci, who’s directed Rogers (her real-life husband) in Fully Committed since that first season. “People just hadn’t found us yet.”
But as Christmas approached, Fully Committed got some buzz behind it. Locals figured out there was real theater taking place at the Cigar Factory, and by the end of that run, the company was selling out performances.
The momentum carried over into a successful 2004 season, and the small professional company has been packing little houses ever since. Along the way, PURE has reprised Fully Committed a couple of times for limited engagements, a nod to an audience-favorite that helped establish the company on the local scene.
This year’s production is no one-off audience appreciation show: If you count Monday’s pay-what-you-can preview, PURE is offering up the 17 performances of the play over the first 20 days of December.
Fully Committed is like nothing else in the PURE repertoire: A comedy, with one actor playing dozens of roles (the count fluctuates; Graci’s latest is 28), with all the action taking place in the basement of Manhattan’s trendiest restaurant.
It’s satirical and relentlessly clever, but Mode is miles away from the Neil LaBute/David Mamet style that informs so many of this company’s best moments.
“It’s an entertainment,” says Rogers, himself a playwright and director. For him, this performance draws more from elements of standup comedy than his more traditional roles, and even if it represents a break from PURE’s usual tastes, it’s still a challenge. “I don’t feel like we’ve ever nailed it.”
Local critics have disagreed, generally offering high praise for both the play and his acting. But part of what makes Fully Committed such an enjoyable night of theater is the sense that one is watching an actor juggling chainsaws on a high wire. None of Rogers’ performances have been exactly alike, and the show’s rapid-fire pacing creates moments that feel improvisational and even dangerous.
This isn’t to say Fully Committed is quite the stage equivalent of watching a NASCAR race. But when Rogers interrupts his telephone sparring with a stacked-up switchboard of callers (whom he creates through deft vocal and physical characterization) only to turn and shout off-stage at unseen tormenters (whom he also plays), who in turn harass him down imaginary stairwells and over a make-believe intercom, the sense that the whole thing could spin terribly out of control in an instant adds a little spice to an evening’s entertainment.
For anyone who has ever worked in the notoriously frenetic food and beverage industry, that mixture of terror and excitement is probably familiar. Whatever else it is, Fully Committed is one of the funniest pieces ever written about the upscale restaurant business. Mode wrote from experience, scalding chefs and waiters and celebrities and enormous egos with a glee that smacks of sweet revenge.
Think of it as The Bonfire of the Vanities for the foodie crowd.
So one might think Fully Committed would enjoy cult status here in Charleston, one of the most cuisine-obsessed cities in America. And one would be wrong.
Rogers and Graci say F&B workers as a group haven’t discovered the play yet, although when they first staged it at the Cigar Factory, they invited culinary students and faculty from Johnson & Wales to come downstairs and watch.
The memory of that audience cracks Graci up, and she pauses for a moment.
“They died,” she says. “The Johnson & Wales people died laughing.”
With PURE now conducting business near the heart of the city’s restaurant district (the company moved into Lance Hall at Circular Church on Meeting Street in May), this could be the year Charleston foodies find Fully Committed.
But whatever happens with the audience, Lance Hall’s limited configuration options have already inspired one big change: This time Graci put Rogers in a rolling chair in the middle of the long, open room, with the audience lining the walls. There’s also a memorable bit of business with Post-It notes.
Those touches are fun, but Graci said what’s really different in directing this new version of the show is Rogers himself.
“Rodney’s just an actor who’s done more acting since then,” she says. “He’s a wonderful actor and I thought he was great the first time, but he’s got so much more experience to bring back to this now. So it’s not so much about how we’ll stage it, as how we’ll execute it.
“That first time around, a lot of our audience wasn’t with us, and they’d never seen it,” she adds. “So when we saw an opportunity to bring it back, that was interesting for us. But you know, ultimately, it’s a nice night at the theater, and we demand nothing more of an audience than to experience 90 minutes of joy.”