As Christmas and New Year's Eve approach, the restaurant is backed up until March. But that doesn't stop the onslaught of wishing and hoping Sam endures over the telephone. Chanos switches into all of the callers, a dizzying array of stereotypes that would be offensive if they hadn't been observed so truthfully. With apologies to all for whom the show fits, Sam plays defense against a pushy Jew, an Italian Mafioso and an air-head homosexual, among others. (The latter is supermodel Naomi Campbell's assistant, Bryce, whose demands escalate throughout the show; he ends up bringing in his own low-watt light bulbs.)
The heart of Chanos' performance, though, is in glimpses of Sam's life outside the restaurant. Sometime during the last year, his mother has died in South Bend, Indiana, and his father has wishes and hopes of his own: He wants Sam home for the holidays. As Sam's basic goodness seeps out, the indignities of his position make him all the more sympathetic. (Mark Setlock, the actor who helped Mode create the script and who originated the Sam role in New York, lacked Chanos' warmth and sweetness; he seemed to be as bitchy as his customers, making the play as insular as the restaurant it parodies.)
Mark Robbins' direction adds to the magical mystery that surrounds the mounting of a ninety-minute one-man show. Chanos' trust in his director is evident throughout and, in a show where so many things could go wrong if one line were bobbled or misplaced, you feel Robbins' unwavering support. Atif Rome's set, including a massive spiral staircase that winds its way to the circus upstairs, provides Chanos with another layer of security blanket, as does David Kiehl's sound design, a mix of the constant rings and dial tones downstairs and the din above.
The first time I dared to walk into a bold-print New York restaurant, I fully expected the "fully committed" brush-off, the host revealing me as a Midwestern fraud. Instead, I managed a "right this way." Subsequent meals there have elevated it to a regular stop on my trips to New York, even if I've never seen Gwyneth Paltrow wiping crumbs from her famous lips. The acceptance suggested by gaining access to such a place is weirdly addictive, and the success of Chanos' performance shows the human side of the madness.
The story ostensibly follows attempts by Strepsiades (Chris Johnson) to find ways to settle his monumental debts, but it generates all the fascination of listening to someone's credit history. Director Dan DeMott and choreographer Sally Crawford give the clouds a range of actions and reactions to Strepsiades, but they merely distract from the tale's problematic hero. And Johnson's scenery chewing and bellowing, one-note diction give his frequent speeches the monochromatic tint of unbridled buffoonery; he could be playing Bluto in a live-action Popeye strip.
The show might be more involving if stagehands and actors weren't wandering in plain sight behind a set large enough to keep them contained. Or if the preshow announcement that we were about to see a 90-minute show had been more honest -- at the 110-minute point, new characters were still being introduced. There's a market for and newsworthiness about this kind of thing -- the hill was well populated at 7:30 a.m. with kids, adults and seniors alike -- but this offering needs a lot more polish to warrant its place in the sun.