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New Year's Revolutions

Serious theater? In Broward County? Don't chuckle. You've been asleep if you haven't noticed some decided cultural shifts in what used to be the Land of Laughs and Musicals. Broward stage companies have long leaned toward the sweet and silly when programming their seasons, usually top-heavy with musical reviews and ultralight comedies, leaving more adventurous productions to theaters to the north and south. But several trends this season suggest significant changes. New companies, such as the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation and the Sol in Fort Lauderdale, are offering weightier fare. And the decision by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to produce some of the shows it presents may be the biggest news of all.

When it comes to the theater scene, the BCPA is probably the most overlooked venue in South Florida. It presents a staggering array of theater, top-name music acts, dance, comedy, you name it. The complex features two spiffy theaters with excellent acoustics and sightlines; an open, easy-access lobby design; and a lovely view of the water. It's hard to dispute the contention that this is the best performance space in the area. It's also a monument to a civic-minded political will: If Broward can manage to pull this off, why can't Miami's attempts at a cultural center manage to get out of the arguing stage?

The Broward Center has always been primarily a roadhouse for touring shows and secondarily a rental house for locally produced shows. But it recently took a big step forward when it decided to produce the off-Broadway comedy Fully Committed as its first in-house production. The choice is a good one from a programming perspective (it's an entertaining, fast-paced satire of the snooty restaurant world) as well as an extremely conservative business move (it's a play with only one set and a very small cast). Fully Committed takes its title from the restaurant term meaning "completely booked" (which really means way overbooked). Like most theater people, playwright Becky Mode is a former restaurant worker who delivers a scathing, in-the-know portrait of the scabrous, preening, pretentious restaurant scene currently on display in New York -- though similar behavior can be observed at least as far south as Key West.

The story follows a single day in the life of a harried restaurant "reservationist" named Sam, whose miserable job entails trying to please the onslaught of desperate celebrities and wannabes who demand immediate seating at the best tables in a four-star New York eatery.

Sam is a likable young man, an aspiring actor who toils in the basement bowels of the boite while waiting for his big break in show business. He's hoping for a callback at Lincoln Center while juggling the incessant calls from diners and the equally incessant hot-line calls from his impossibly demanding boss, known only as "the Chef." The play sets up a nerve-racking, phone-jangling pace and goes on from there to complete mass psychosis. Sam's slacker coworker Bob fails to show up for work, claiming his car broke down. Sam covers for him but soon realizes Bob has screwed up several critical reservations, including failing to note that Tim Zagat, the guru of restaurant critics, is due in and the restaurant is already way overbooked. Meanwhile, a restroom accident of profound proportions prompts all the busboys to disappear just as Nina Zagat heads for the head, leaving the snooty maitre d' screaming on one phone for Sam to clean up the problem while the Chef screams at him on another to get a helicopter flight ready to go in 30 minutes.

The careening story line features dozens of characters -- including hysterical matrons, a desperate movie-studio junior exec, Naomi Campbell's nattering assistant, Sam's widowed father, a rival actor, a sous chef, a Mafioso, a Kentucky socialite, a Milwaukee doctor's assistant, and so on. This thundering cast would normally place the cost of production into the stratosphere, but Fully Committed is a one-man show, and I mean that literally. The peripatetic Tim McGeever plays everybody in this story. He embodies Sam onstage, of course, but also takes on the roles of all the insufferable VIPs who are calling him, at times darting among a half-dozen characters as Sam receives calls and puts them on hold. It's a hilarious tour de force for the talented actor and a clever theatrical conceit that's akin to radio drama.

At the start of the show, the one-man act seems a bit odd, but as the story progresses, McGeever manages to really conjure these off-stage characters. The result is charming entertainment with some satiric bite as the put-upon Sam, in classic comedic fashion, manages to turn the restaurant tables on his pompous tormentors. Fully Committed is directed with appealing clarity and pace by Daniel Goldstein, who has been involved with several productions of the play around the country. The show is also blessed with solid production values, including a realistic set by Michael Amico. Broward Center is off to a very promising start, which, it is devoutly to be wished, will lead to more local productions and more challenging programming.

While Fully Committed generates laughs off eastern Broward Boulevard, more theater is afoot at the western end, in Plantation. The Mosaic Theatre, a new company led by artistic director Richard Simon, has set up shop in the basement of the American Heritage School. The Mosaic's recent production of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is in direct contrast to the Broward Center's show, and not just geographically. Set in Beirut in the early 1990s, Someone is a three-man play about Westerners imprisoned by Muslim fundamentalists.

The trio, an American doctor, Adam (Robert Strain); an Irish journalist, Edward (Christian Rockwell); and an English academic, Michael (Peter Haig), are chained to separate walls in a single, empty, prison cell. As months drag on, they struggle to maintain their sanity and find the will to endure their ordeal and the ever-present threat of sudden death at the hands of their captors. As might be expected, the tough-talking Irishman can't stand the ultracivilized, prim Englishman, who seems a fussy scholar immersed in irrelevant worlds of medieval romance and myth. But as their situation worsens, a remarkable turnabout occurs: The Irishman begins to crack under the strain, but the Englishman finds strength from his classical texts. What begins as a hyperrealistic political drama turns into a parable of the human need for storytelling, to give order and sense to an incomprehensible, chaotic present experience.

All this may sound depressing, but that's only part of the effect of this production. Featuring excellent, finely detailed performances, the production takes you through a spectrum of emotions -- and thoughts. There is sorrow here, and conflict, but also a considerable amount of wit and humor. Haig is superb as Michael, the seemingly weak-willed pedant whose inner reserve surprises even himself. Rockwell and Strain are also excellent, a fine ensemble that speaks well of Simon's casting instincts and his level of expectation. Simon's direction is effective -- spare and detailed -- though I wish he had allowed for more silences and tempo shifts.

The Mosaic has made a strong showing with Someone, but unfortunately, the play did not gain the audiences it deserved and the theater did not extend its regular run as anticipated, closing it on December 23. Like several other area theaters, the Mosaic appears to be from the Produce It and They Will Come school of marketing. Sadly, worthy productions do not automatically make for strong audience response. The performance I attended, toward the middle of the run, pulled in eight people. How to get the word out when the costs of advertising are so high? That's the big challenge for the Mosaic and for most area theaters, especially the smaller ones. They (and you) can't count on me to take up the slack -- this is a weekly column, after all.

So what to do? Here's one partial solution for the sometime theatergoer: Do some marketing yourself. Call your local company, make some reservations, gather your friends, and go, with or without reviews to rely on. If you are fortunate to stumble on a cast like this one, you'll count yourselves blessed.

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Ronald Mangravite

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