- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Pity poor Ethan Sandler. The actor — the sole person onstage — plays more than 30 characters within 75 minutes in "Fully Committed," the comic monologue at Ford's Theatre about a harried restaurant reservationist.

His understudy, Patrick McNulty, sits backstage during every performance reading short stories and books on meditation and never knowing when he might be called upon to do what probably is the most strenuous one-person show in theater today.

For Mr. Sandler to remember the split-second changes that have him portraying a chef one moment and a clerk, owner or innumerable demanding customers the next is hard enough. How does his backup manage in an emergency without the benefit of daily practice?

"It's definitely been the most challenging role of my career," Mr. McNulty says in a telephone conversation his first free day in Washington. "The first time in San Francisco when [playing the lead] I knew one month in advance, but it was still completely terrifying. You switch characters so fast. You kind of make up little sayings in your head that help you connect the end of one call and hint at who is the next caller.

"I used to put a listing of characters in the order they appear beneath the reservation book. The list is 120 names long with some of the same characters popping in and out. I had that just in case. The really terrifying thing is you might skip some characters and get terribly lost. The stage manager, meanwhile, is trying to coordinate all the lights, sound and stage directions and doesn't know where you are.

"The first time I did it I had a signal arranged with the stage manager. I told her if I flubbed she should just stop ringing phones. I get one-third through the show, and the phone stops ringing… . I pick up the reservation book and start exhaustively reading through the list. It turns out by my analysis I've done everything correct. She had forgotten to ring the phone."

Mr. McNulty, who has been on the job six months with "Fully Committed," was called upon three times during the San Francisco run. In Boston, he was told late one night that he was to go on twice the next day.

"That was terrible. We had just got to town, and I hadn't done a technical run-through, so I wasn't familiar with the theater. There is no way to cheat," he says. "You are out there all alone. It's like being on a deserted island, and you have to stay alive."

Mr. McNulty, 30, graduated from Northwestern University and got a master's degree in fine arts from American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He has worked "in all kinds of fancy restaurants," including one in which the chef "made the waiters cry every night in the kitchen."

As irony would have it, Mr. Sandler — who also attended Northwestern — has been an understudy for Mr. McNulty. It happened during the Midwestern premiere of Eric Bogosian's "Suburbia" by Roadworks Productions, a Chicago company Mr. McNulty and some of his friends founded in the mid-1990s.

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