The past year for Neal Feinberg has been a whirlwind. And it all began on a particularly busy day while he was singlehandedly manning the Yorkville Tennis Club on the Upper East Side.After hours of teaching on the courts, the phones were ringing off the hook with powerful clients trying to throw their weight around when an overwhelming feeling of deja vu washed over the head pro. But it wasn’t his own. He was thinking of Sam, the star of “Fully Committed,” a one-man show written by Becky Mode that he saw 15 years ago at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.
The voice-over actor and comedian had completely forgotten about the play, he said, until that moment.
“I ran home, pulled out the script and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I am this guy,’” Mr. Feinberg said last week during a telephone interview. “My life is like Sam. We’re the same character.”
It was a simple decision to take on the 90-minute production as his next project, which he will stage on Tuesday, July 2, at Guild Hall in East Hampton. And as he delved further and further into the 55-page play, more similarities between the two men unfolded.
They had each lost their mother, leaving both men behind with their fathers and older brothers. They’re both aspiring, struggling actors waiting patiently for their big breaks. And, in the meantime, they work frustrating day jobs answering telephones and bending over backward for celebrity clients—Mr. Feinberg as club manager and Sam as a reservationist in a trendy Manhattan restaurant.
They are both gatekeepers into their respective worlds, Mr. Feinberg said, swamped with bossy demands from entitled clients—39 of them, in Sam’s case.
Mr. Feinberg—who is best known for his Colt .40 Feinberg, an angry black comedian character, on the Howard Stern Show—carries on conversations between Sam and more than three dozen other characters every time the phone or buzzer rings by changing his voice, posture, physique and facial expressions to differentiate between the two, or sometimes three, on stage at a time.
Some of them, in one form or another, Mr. Feinberg has been impersonating for years, he said. There’s banned customer Ned Finley, whom the comedian bases on actor Owen Wilson, and rival actor Jerry, who sounds remarkably similar to actor Steve Buscemi’s voice.
Sam’s agent’s assistant, Curtis, has the “aura of a queen hairdresser—super bitchy” with a thick “Nuyorican” accent. He is based on Terracita, a housekeeper who helped raise Mr. Feinberg as a child, he said.
And then there’s Mrs. Sebag, modeled after a family member, who is always on the verge of total hysteria.
“The voice and face are based on my Aunt Jeanette, who was lobotomized and used to come to family gatherings with lipstick smeared all over her face—it’s okay, you can laugh. We all did,” he said, “and also based on a hysterical ex-girlfriend who I’ll spare the embarrassment by not naming.”
Many of the characters are based on Yorkville Tennis Club clients, including actress Emma Watson and journalist Diane Sawyer. Others, Mr. Feinberg completely invented, he said, such as the Chef—who is a combination between rock star Marilyn Manson and actor Jack Nicholson.
“He is this abusive, nasty, mean, frat boy. He’s almost like a porn star. He’s just so sexy,” Mr. Feinberg said, lowering his voice. “He talks like this.”
Breaking character, he laughed and continued, “You have 40 of these guys interrupting each other, yelling over each other, talking over each other. I’m just so in love with them all. And each of the characters I just see as a different facet of Sam’s personality. Maybe of all of us.”
It took Mr. Feinberg two weeks, an hour per day, to nail down the first character, he said. Then, it was 39 to go, and he took to the streets of Manhattan to rehearse.
“I must have looked like a paranoid schizophrenic,” he said, “reciting the entire show out loud. Forty characters, from one character to the next, which in New York makes perfect sense because there’s plenty of other people doing that.”
But “Fully Committed” is not a springboard to just act out 40 different characters. This is not an “impersonation festival,” Mr. Feinberg said. The most important role is Sam, he said, and the comedian is acting him out in a way he’s never seen done before.
Typically, Sam is an “eager-to-please, well-meaning guy,” Mr. Feinberg said, which he didn’t find satisfying.
“Think of the things going on in his life. What if he’s an asshole? Frustrated and angry and fighting off depression?” he said. “So I made a choice to play him like that and not care whether people like me or not. Once I had the freedom to show what this guy would really do, everything turned a corner. He’s just the one guy who needs to catch one break to blow it all open. I’ve always felt like that one guy. I just need that one break.”
He’s come close several times: first with his Colt .40 Feinberg impression, which nearly landed him a full-time gig with the Howard Stern Show, again with a role on FOX’s animated series “American Dad!” and lastly with a showcase for HBO that was never picked up.
After years of chasing his dreams—starting at age 4 by walking up to random strangers in restaurants to tell his jokes, which always seemed to culminate with the punch line, “My tie,” to his first impersonation at age 12 of his tennis coach, Welby Van Horn, at summer camp—Mr. Feinberg is doing “Fully Committed” for himself, he admitted.
“I can honestly say, this one’s for me,” the 42-year-old said. “This is just for the sheer pleasure of picking a great piece of work, spending a year busting my ass to get it in a place that I really like, where all the characters are just where I want them, and playing my instrument just for the joy and pleasure of playing it. And that’s exactly what it’s been.”
Neal Feinberg will star in the one-man show “Fully Committed” on Tuesday, July 2, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 624-0836 or visit guildhall.org.