Produced by PURE Theatre
Dec. 11-13, 17-20, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 14, 2 p.m.
Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting St.
A mensch is a terrible thing to waste, yet waste them we do, by the thousands, all across America. Talented, decent people, toiling in obscurity, protecting their unrewarded integrity, struggling to comprehend why the jerks get the perks.
And after watching half-a-dozen performances of Becky Mode's one-act play Fully Committed as produced by PURE Theatre over the past five years, it's easy to see why Rodney Lee Rogers plays Sam Pelickzowski with such comfortable affinity: He's a mensch playing a mensch in a story about learning to survive in a world that treats mensches like baby harp seals.
That Rogers and PURE are still here, producing this play again five years after its first run, is testament that their story arc has much in common with Sam's. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fully Committed manages to be rapid-fire funny without being slapstick or blunt-object obvious, and it does so via an inventive one-man conceit that on this night evoked 36 characterizations (your mileage may vary).
Sam is an actor working as a reservations clerk in the basement of an excruciatingly fashionable Manhattan restaurant. It's December. He's got a recently widowed father home alone in South Bend, an absurdly dysfunctional work environment, and a stage career stuck on a treadmill of disappointment.
The resolutions of those conflicts are funny and illuminating, which is plenty of reason for audiences to come out. The more interesting question is, why would PURE want to revisit it (beyond the obvious collection of gate receipts)? Could the husband-and-wife team of Rogers and co-artistic director Sharon Graci stay true to the original and still bring out something fresh and interesting?
And the answer is a resounding ... sorta. The 2008 model isn't tangibly all that different beyond the fact that the company's move to Lance Hall at 150 Meeting St. required a new staging. There are new bits, but as Graci telegraphed in her comments two weeks ago, what's significantly different isn't material. I found it contained in a pause.
Rogers' 2008 Sam generally resembles the Sam of 2003, which means most of the character development this time went into improving the secondary parts. The tyrannical Chef, for instance, has been perfected — he's probably the star of this version, a fully realized comic creation who torments Sam with purring self-absorption. But the stand-out moment Tuesday came when Sam — besieged, beset, and typically frantic — simply stops.
In the intimate confines of Lance Hall, Rogers' little pause, probably no more than three seconds, conveys a shift in Sam's inner landscape. Sam the mensch is starting to understand the advice that will finally put him in control of his life, and that deft bit of unspoken communication is one of the lovely things about live theater. It's uncomfortable to balance on a pause like that, but when an actor interprets a great script with this much confidence, it feels like a revelation.
Modes 10-year-old script, however, is starting to feel like a period piece, and Tuesdays performance wasnt perfect (if memory serves, and it often serves poorly, there were some bits that didnt make it into the show).
But here's the important part: Those flaws didn't detract appreciably from the finished product, because — let's face it — this show is all about Rogers' ability to tell a story.
Which brings us back to that connection between the actor and the character: The message here is that you don't have to become a jerk to get along in the world — but you do have to act with unshakable conviction.
Sam learns that lesson on stage. Rogers learned it years ago.