In Fully Committed, Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Sam, the hapless staffer left to man the phone lines solo at the most in-demand high-end restaurant in Manhattan. Aided only by lightning-fast shifts of his voice and physical mannerisms, he also plays Sam’s bosses and co-workers, as well as his family, friends and professional associates, and the constant stream of customers on the end of his phone line, lobbying vociferously for a table. The virtuoso performance is one that begs to be described as a comedic tour de force, and unquestionably, Ferguson’s efforts command applause, as do those of director Jason Moore, who has provided almost non-stop business for the actor to juggle.
But all that sweat somehow doesn’t add up to much more than a string of sometimes-funny jokes in Becky Mode’s one-person one-act about the ridiculous faddishness of upscale foodie culture. A downtown hit in 1999 that’s been widely produced around the country and abroad ever since, the play doesn’t lend itself to bloated Broadway treatment, no matter who is starring. So while it’s easy to admire Derek McLane’s elaborate set — a cluttered basement office beneath a sculptural tangle of dining chairs and a wall-size wine refrigerator — it’s also impossible to escape the nagging feeling that this flippant satirical comedy is being swallowed up by its outsize production. I kept thinking it would be funnier in a 200-seat black box theater where it really was all about the mad skills of the actor.
What you get out of it will depend on your devotion to the very likeable Modern Family star — back on Broadway for the first time since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 10 years ago. And also how often you can laugh at evidence that the only person more annoying than Gwyneth Paltrow is her personal assistant, whose multiple calls cover requirements for a 15-person vegan tasting menu (no legumes or female wait staff) and adjustments to the lighting. I confess I chuckled at that, but for all its updated references (Yelp, Open Table), the play nonetheless seems passé. Given the shifts in thinking about one-percent entitlement, the whole idea of the rich and famous clamoring to pay a fortune for molecular gastronomy sprinkled with edible dirt and toxic-sounding foam feels like a single-joke concept whose time has elapsed.
It’s tempting to compare the play to another, more recent one-man off-Broadway hit about a struggling actor forced to take a humiliating job to pay the rent, Buyer & Cellar. While that play took a far more outlandish premise (its protagonist went to work minding the collectibles in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement), the character and situation developed in constantly surprising directions, delivering a payoff that involved considerable personal growth. Fully Committed, while not without its charms, is thinner gruel.
There’s a semi-substantial thread in Sam’s anxiety about the dry spell in his acting career, pegged to an audition for a Lincoln Center Twelfth Night for which his passive-aggressively competitive friend has had a callback. That strand dovetails cleverly with the non-responsiveness of his agent until Sam uses his tiny bit of power at the restaurant for leverage. Mode provides a glimpse of his personal life by divulging that his boyfriend has recently moved out and his mother died, teasing out the uncertainty about whether his monstrous bosses will give him time off to go home for the family’s first Christmas without her. But none of this is robust enough to make us invest in a whole character or share in his small moments of triumph amid the nonstop ordeal. Which leaves us with a play that’s basically a multiple-personality-disorder party trick.
Within those limitations, Ferguson excels, bouncing among 40-plus distinct characters without ever tripping up. His primary tool is accents, some more memorable than others. The sneering celebrity chef, an egotistical jerk, is an amusingly noxious American dude, while the cokehead French maitre d’, the Brit hostess and the Hispanic cook are more cookie-cutter types. The real enjoyment is in the customers, with regulars arranged according to a color-coded VIP system. They range from the pushy to the pleading, with a shrieking socialite named Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn at the more odious end of the spectrum. There’s also a fun moment of explosive rage when a caller from Fox Searchlight gets zero traction, and a cute throwaway nod to the Modern Family fans near the end when Sofia Vergara calls.
However, I found myself more aware of the intricate mechanics of the piece than consistently tickled by its humor, with the observations rarely exhibiting much in the way of fresh cultural insight. Mode dexterously weaves multiple strands together and Moore (another Broadway returnee, back from directing Pitch Perfect and Sisters in Hollywood) is certainly resourceful at finding ways to keep Ferguson in motion, which requires impressive stamina. But no amount of physical exertion can disguise thin material that just wasn’t designed for presentation on this scale — McLane’s mega-set notwithstanding.
Even at a brief 80 minutes, it eventually becomes as wearing as it must be for Sam enduring that barrage of phone calls. I was reminded of one of those unsatisfying dining experiences that add insult to injury when you can’t get the waiter’s attention to grab the check and get out of there.
This season has been marked by a lot of reckless producing on Broadway. Among the box-office underachievers: The religious inspirational musical, Amazing Grace, made an unwise bet by counting on a faith-based audience in heathen New York; the backers of a premature Spring Awakening revival overestimated the appetite for a show whose superior original production had closed 20 minutes earlier; Forest Whitaker is not Hugh Jackman, so Oscar winner or not, putting him in the 55-minute Eugene O’Neill downer, Hughie, was commercial folly; Dames at Sea was conceived as a cheapo, wink-wink pastiche of Busby Berkeley-style musical extravaganzas, so slapping it in a primetime house with a no-name cast made no sense; and even with first-rate Broadway talent, the title of the ‘70s Hollywood spoof Disaster! speaks volumes.
Although it doesn’t appear so from preview figures, maybe Ferguson’s name will be enough to sell tickets to Fully Committed. But it seems like unfair pressure on this talented actor to prove his marquee clout in an amuse-bouche at entrée prices.
Venue: Lyceum Theater, New York
Cast: Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Director: Jason Moore
Playwright: Becky Mode, based on characters created by Mode and Mark Setlock
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music: Jeff Richmond
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Marcia Goldberg, Tom Casserly, Aaron Glick, David Binder