Since I mainly hang out at restaurants that bring me fresh tortilla chips and salsa without me even having to snap my fingers, the Darwinian world of competitive restaurant reservations was a fascinating fishbowl of a setting to watch.
And the person at the center of this booking hub for an exclusive restaurant (with a totally realistic set created by Kevin Rigdon with multiple phones and computers and even a coffee pot) is Sam, an up-and-coming actor who handles reservations for a restaurant with so much demand that the people who want in will go to great lengths to get a reservation when (and where) they want it. It is very competitive! Lots of egos involved! Not any table will do!
And Sam, played by the super-talented Dylan Godwin, has to handle the stress of a constant barrage of calls from people who want reservations at a place that is mostly Fully Committed, or for those of you who maybe went to public schools like I did, “completely booked.” As part of the Alley’s alternative Christmas show in the Neuhaus Theatre, this production is a more intimate theater in the round experience than the big stage, and I always love being able to feel closer to the actors. You can see their expressions so much better, and it feels like the stakes are higher. And that's because they are: this show is kind of a high-wire act, with Godwin changing characters so quickly, you just wonder how he can keep all these characters straight for the entire hour and a half. And when he does, you just marvel at it, because it is marvelous.
But in this case, it's just one actor playing all of these roles, and although I have frequently written about Dylan Godwin and how over-the-top talented I think he is, this performance made me realize just how right I am. He doesn’t just play “Sam,” the likable actor who is working at this reservations gig (I mean, this show is all about exposing how awful the gig economy can be—whether you are an artist or not) between auditions. And not all of his auditions have panned out. But the audience is rooting for Sam—we want him to get his big break, and that wistful feeling that maybe he can just leave this job for a bigger stage stayed with me the entire performance. There is nothing wrong with working the reservation desk, but we want Sam to live out his dreams.
As I said, Godwin plays many roles, and if my count is correct, he plays forty characters, ranging from snotty socialites (one of whom is named Bunny Vandevere, I kid you not) to the somewhat coarse and rough-edged head chef to a French maître de who judges his clientele on their beauty quotient.
It is all fast-paced, and you have to keep up. There are a lot of plates spinning in the air under Brandon Weinbrenner’s clever direction, and it's thrilling to watch. I loved the name-droppers (“We are bringing Malcolm Gladwell!”) and the double-entendres, and Bryce, the assistant for Gwyneth Paltrow. I loved the satire, the insufferable pretensions of the pretentious, the way Sam’s dad seems like the next best thing to Mr. Rogers, and how you just like him.
I loved the preciousness of the food choices and the way certain clients didn’t just want to eat, they wanted to change everything about the restaurant to fit their ridiculous demands. Ah, the humanity! The only thing that bothered me is that some guns left on the table never go off. For example, there's a guy who is banned from getting any more reservations but we're never sure why, and he doesn’t seem all that bad—that line of the story kind of falls away. But that's a problem with the writing, not the performance, and it is more than made up for by the way disparate characters do indeed intersect and have an impact on Sam and his decisions later in the show. I won’t spoil anything here, but it is very entertaining to watch these seemingly unconnected patrons braid together as the story unfolds.
I loved the intensity of this show, from seeing Godwin transform into so many memorable characters to being impressed that the sound design (Bradley Jay Gowers) was so well-executed. You can’t have the wrong phone ring in this play, and the sounds definitely keep Godwin running and on his toes. His ability to inhabit a character completely—as in, going way beyond just a changed-up accent and truly bringing a physical dimension to each character—is the main reason this show works. There is a whole other layer to one-person shows, and this one is as demanding as any I have seen before.
Playwright Becky Mode’s biggest achievement is creating empathy for Sam as he deals with everyone from his kind Dad who wants him home for Christmas to the near-abusive complaints from certain customers. There is a lot of action in one room, and this could easily have slipped into a sort of “Who’s on First” madcap kind of show. But thanks to Godwin, it doesn’t, and you really see how life just kind of unfolds in a magical way sometimes, and things that seemed terrible five minutes ago can shift faster than you can catch your breath. That message might be one of the best Christmas gifts you can get this year. So catch a master class in acting and get thee to the Alley to watch Dylan Godwin do his magic. You will be glad you did.
Runs through Dec. 29. Tickets start at $47. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.