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Photograph by Ron Severdia
On Call: Justin Scheuer is one of two actors who trade off in this demanding role.

Fully Launched

'Committed' a great start for new studio series at Sixth Street.

By David Templeton

In the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, there's a moment late in the film where Miss Maudie Atkinson tells Scout and Jem, "There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us." She's talking about the lawyer Atticus Finch, whose job includes standing up to the prejudices and intolerance of the racially divided town of Maycomb.

Those same words could also apply to Sam, who works in a basement taking phone reservations at a popular New York restaurant in Becky Mode's hysterically funny one-actor play Fully Committed. His is a job that involves juggling bad-mannered and demanding customers, withstanding an onslaught of condescension and petty cruelty, assuaging the egos of the manic-depressive maitre d' and the passive-aggressive owner-chef, and occasionally cleaning up soiled restrooms, all while squeezing reservations into a calendar that is completely booked--excuse me, "fully committed"--for weeks and weeks. By the end of the 90-minute play, poor Sam has earned his place among men like Atticus Finch and the other unsung heroes who must toil and sweat and say nice things to rude people every day of their lives.

Unlike Atticus Finch, however, Sam--to use the vernacular of New York basement dwellersis-- fucking hilarious. Played on alternate nights by actors Dan Saski and Justin Scheuer, Sam is a marvelous theatrical invention whom we get to watch evolve and grow over the course of a single busy pre-Christmas day in which the struggling and discouraged would-be actor finds himself manning the phones all alone and ultimately discovering a grain of self-determination that he didn't know he had.

What is marvelous about the script is that the actor playing Sam is also required to play all the characters he talks to on the phone or on the restaurant's intercom. On opening night, Scheuer was the actor in the hot seat, morphing seamlessly from Sam to the chef to the haughty Mrs. Van Deveere (whose husband may have invented Saran Wrap) to the pestering gay assistant of a famous actress ("No female waitstaff at the table, please!"), back to Sam and so on.

By the end, the actor has slipped in and out of some 40 characters, sometimes for no more than a few seconds, giving each role a defined set of physical characteristics without losing the thread of Sam's mounting exasperation. Performed at a rapid pace with no intermission, Scheuer's performance is theatrical daredevilry, simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating to watch.

Much of the humor is broad, but a great deal of it is subtle; Sam, as played by Scheuer, always answers the phone with the same measured reading of "Good morning, reservations, can you hold please?" no matter what has just occurred or how flustered and overwhelmed he feels, a schtick that just gets funnier and funnier as the show proceeds. Even Atticus Finch, who knows a thing or two about thankless jobs, would be amused.

Very nicely directed--with a strong sense of humor and humanity--by Argo Thompson (who played the part of Sam in a popular Actors Theatre production of the play in 2002), this production of Fully Committed is more than a first-rate staging of a very funny play. It also marks the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of the Sixth Street Playhouse, which now adds the small 99-seat studio theater, built next door to the larger G. K. Hardt Theatre (recently named for a late benefactor). /p>

The studio, which will remind regular theatergoers of the wonderful black-box Actors Theatre space at the old Luther Burbank Center, will be Sixth Street's "experimental" area, where smaller, edgier, less-mainstream works will be staged as part of the new annual Studio Series. After Committed, the studio will offer the world premiere of Robert Reich's Public Exposure, a David Mamet festival and Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire.

Committed is a good choice to inaugurate the new theater space, in part because Actors Theatre had such success with it in the past. If the rest of the season is as good as the start, we can look forward to some very interesting theater from the creative forces at the studio.

'Fully Committed' runs Friday–Sunday through Sept. 29. Friday–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Studio Theatre, Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $12–$18. Phone 707.523.4185.

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