‘This is the busiest I’ve ever been in my whole life,” says actor-director Tom Story. He’s so busy, in fact, that the only time he can squeeze in an interview is while he’s driving through D.C.’s rush hour from his daytime rehearsals at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Md., to his evening rehearsals at MetroStage in Alexandria. “Oops,” he blurts out during the interview. “I just made a wrong turn, and now I’m on Massachusetts Avenue.”
At Adventure, Story is directing “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” based on the C.S. Lewis book. At MetroStage, he’ll be performing the one-man show “Fully Committed,” which ran on Broadway this summer starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The shows are aimed at entirely different audiences, but they have a weird connection. “I’m directing two actors playing 15 characters during the day,” Story explains, “and at night I’m rehearsing a one-person show playing 40 characters.”
Story has been a professional actor for 17 years, but this is his first one-man show. He has performed three or four roles in a show at Shakespeare Theatre, but even then he had other actors to interact with.
“It’s strange not to have anyone else to listen to and respond to. That’s the part I’m figuring out,” Story says. “You take so much from your fellow actors. Your responses are stimulated by them. There’s a pleasure in playing with another person; it’s like tennis. They’re making choices, and those decisions shape what you’re doing. But with this show you’re making all the choices, which seems like it might be easier, but it’s actually harder.”
The central character in Becky Mode’s “Fully Committed” is Sam, an underemployed actor who’s paying the rent by manning the reservation line at one of Manhattan’s snootiest restaurants, where you can pay north of $200 for such dishes as “smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco.”
Sam is camped out in the eatery’s grungy basement, where four phone lines are constantly ringing with callers who insist they must have a reservation, even though the restaurant is completely booked (or “fully committed”) for the next three months. The restaurant’s neurotic employees call downstairs as well, insisting that Sam solve every problem they don’t feel like dealing with. Meanwhile, Sam’s cellphone keeps ringing with calls from his backstabbing actor “friends” and his Midwestern family members who keep asking whether he’s coming home for Christmas.
“Sam is the main guy,” Story says, “and I’m figuring out who he is. There are nine other characters who appear again and again, but then there’s another 30 who are just there for a moment. I’m trying to treat them all with the same kind of dignity. I’m trying to find the essence of each of them.”
When Story is directing “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he’s guiding his two actors through the same process of finding a different personality for each of the many characters. Those actors have the advantage of swapping hats and jackets for each role, while Story doesn’t have time for such costume changes when he’s playing both sides of each phone conversation in “Fully Committed.”
“It’s fascinating,” he says, “to be directing a play where actors are playing multiple characters and to be acting at the same time in a play where I play multiple characters. Some of it is finding the right voice: One character might use a chest voice while another uses a head voice. But you still have to understand each character’s motivations.”
The only time Story worked in a restaurant to support his acting habit was the summer between graduating from Woodbridge High School in Northern Virginia and his first semester at Duke University. It was aboard the Spirit of Washington, a cruise ship on the Potomac. He wore a reversible vest — the black side faced out when he was taking orders, and the gold-lamé side faced out when he was doing musical numbers. (He says he was a much better singer than waiter.) Even after Story finished his M.F.A. in theater from Juilliard and stayed on in New York, his day job was at a magazine, not at a restaurant.
And when he decided to move back to his old stomping grounds in D.C. eight years ago, it was a counterintuitive choice: Most actors are trying to get out of whatever city they’re in and move to New York.
“It wasn’t the easiest decision I’ve ever made,” Story acknowledges, “but it was the right one. I thought, ‘Am I giving up these big ambitions I had?’ But I’ve really come around on that. D.C. is an incredible place to be an artist. There’s so much work here, and so much good work. My biggest problem in New York was all the time I sat around waiting and not doing anything in the meantime. But I can work a lot here, so there’s not all that time waiting around.”
This fall, Story had the central role of Prior Walter in the Round House and Olney production of “Angels in America,” and as soon as “Fully Committed” finishes, he will go into rehearsal for Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” at Mosaic Theatre. He’ll be playing Morris, the role Fugard often played.
“I’m always trying to find new challenges for myself,” he says. “That’s something I have to do to keep myself interested and alive.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that this production was the regional premiere of “Fully Committed.” The show was staged at Ford’s Theatre in 2001.
MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. 703-548-9044. metrostage.org.
Dates: Through Jan. 8.