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John Kuntz in Fully Committed
(Photo © Lyric Stage Company)
A few weeks ago, Boston-based actor John Kuntz was a cold-blooded Richard III with the Actors' Shakespeare Project; but, for the holiday season, he has turned into 40 comic characters in the Lyric Stage's charming Fully Committed. Becky Mode's sweet frappé of a script provides a great showcase for someone of Kuntz's range. Similar to the David Sedaris classic The Santaland Diaries -- for which Kuntz won the "Outstanding Solo Performance" award from IRNE, the Independent Reviewers of New England -- the piece concerns Sam, a put-upon schlepper who's struggling to remain calm and dutiful even as he's assailed by shirkers, egotists, and general chaos. It's rough on Sam but lots of fun for the audience.

Seated on three sides of the theater's stage, playgoers first encounter a basement office with no one in it. There are brick walls, random boxes, cluttered desks, air-conditioning filters, worn lettering on the maintenance closet, a few colored lights, a plastic fir tree, and a Christmas stocking. Tinny carols filter in. As the house lights dim, Sam comes down the basement stairs, holding the takeout cup that contains the only sustenance he will get this day, and hangs up his winter coat and scarf. He is an aspiring actor from Indiana who keeps body and soul together by scheduling reservations for the fancy restaurant upstairs, a place where the term for "all booked up" is "fully committed."

The show does not serve up deep thoughts or brilliant lines, but it certainly has vivid characters. Each theatergoer will have his/her own favorites. Kuntz nails a dizzying array of accents, sometimes switching among three or more in seconds -- all the while remembering which buttons to press on the phone, the intercom, and the chef's hotline. There's the society matron who's certain of getting her way, the courteous woman from Kentucky who can't believe how many months in advance one must book a restaurant reservation in New York, the gangster who wants someone to sing "The Lady Is a Tramp" to his parents on their anniversary, the caller with the perfect Wisconsin accent, and Naomi Campbell's bonkers assistant with frenetic demands about vegan food.

Jean-Claude, the maitre d', is a consistently funny presence, especially in his determination to avoid taking a call from a difficult female customer. Kuntz's disdainful French accent is a delight to the ears as his Jean-Claude protests, "Sam! She is so ugly! She has a face like a dog!" Then there is Sam's undemanding father in South Bend, who offers a gentle contrast to the nutcases in his son's current world plus a focus for the slim plot: Will Sam get Christmas off so that he can go and cheer up his dad, a recent widower?

The playwright, having been an actress, waitress, and coat-check girl, knows this scene; she has taken what must have been nasty experiences and instead of just saying to commiserating friends "I really should write a play," has gone ahead and done it. The restaurant's "VIP" notations on reservation lists have the ring of truth. The same goes for the staff's occasional confusion about why a customer name is marked "VIP" at all (resulting in leveraged-buyout king Henry Kravis being seated by the kitchen) and other slip-ups (for example, the lost reservation that causes the Zagat restaurant guide founders to wait "like ordinary customers").

Sam hits his lowest point when he is forced to mop up a disaster in the ladies room. But as he begins to realize the power that he wields over people who want something from him, he comes into his own. It doesn't hurt that the woman with a face like a dog is close friends with a honcho at Lincoln Center, where Sam has gotten a callback for a theatrical audition. Our hero starts to feel better about the world, doing the impossible and quickly finding the woman a table. It's safe to say that the audience also ends up feeling better about the world, departing the theater in a genial holiday mood.

Fully Committed is directed by the Lyric Stage's artistic director, Spiro Veloudos. The designers are Skip Curtiss (set), Robert Cordella (lighting), and Dewey Dellay (sound). Sarah Hilary Johnson is the stage manager.

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