- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

If hell is other people, Sam is at the center of it. His job is to manage reservations for a snobbish restaurant in Manhattan. When we meet Sam, his co-worker is late for work. Sam must face the unruly public alone.

Assailed by a rude staff, including a sneering, preening chef and a maitre d' who holds most of the world in contempt and sniffs drugs, Sam frantically juggles incoming calls — and his disordered life. He is, like many New York restaurant employees, an aspiring actor. He wants to go home for Christmas to see his recently widowed father, and he wants to get some acting work soon.

Many callers and several employees make appearances in "Fully Committed" at Ford's Theatre, and they are all embodied by Ethan Sandler.

Mr. Sandler plays at least 30 characters in the show. (It was hard to keep count.) He provides both sides of the conversation, which is hard to do unless you're a politician, and shows what it's like to fend off self-important wretches in pursuit of a table.

Answering phones is thankless work, and Mr. Sandler's Sam does it without complaint. Anyone who has had to be liaison to the public will shiver in recognition as Sam struggles to put up with his bosses' petulant demands and callers' rudeness.

Mr. Sandler's performance is marred only because some of the characters are not distinct enough from one another. When he switches from one character's voice to another, the first occasionally slides into the second.

Watching Mr. Sandler perform is similar to watching an athlete; he is put under so much pressure, I had a headache halfway through the play. Remarkably, Mr. Sandler manages to keep the audience focused on the characters instead of his acting. In his hands, Sam's decency and inner fortitude — tested by multiple frantic requests and dreams that elude him — make him a satisfying guy with whom to spend an evening. We don't feel sorry for him, but we still root for him.

The lighting by Frances Aronson picks up the subtle changes in mood as time elapses and a shift in space when Sam talks to someone upstairs. Daniel Goldstein's direction keeps Sam prowling around his basement office as he conducts his business. The scattered moments of rest, whether a break in the phone calls or because Sam wants to put a caller through the mild torture of waiting on hold for a while, are well-placed.

The play, a first-time effort by Washington native Becky Mode, made its debut nearly 11/2 years ago in New York and has topical references to TV character Ally McBeal and model Naomi Campbell that remain fresh. Ms. Mode reveals Sam's character without resorting to soliloquies — we only learn about his background when he talks to the callers. Although the script occasionally is touching, it contains none of the overwrought emotionalism that often creeps into the work of young writers.

That being said, many of the characters are cliches — the overbearing Jewish woman, the prissy maitre d'. Some are better drawn, particularly the restaurant staff.

If you want an entertaining evening — and a refreshing change from contemporary plays that concern themselves with sex or "relationships" — "Fully Committed" is your dish.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Fully Committed"WHERE: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Feb. 25TICKETS: $27 to $43PHONE: 703/218-6500, 202/347-4833 or www.fordstheatre.org

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