Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 25, 2016
Fully Committed by Becky Mode. Based on characters created by Becky Mode and Mark Setlock. Directed by Jason Moore. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Sarah Laux. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Jeff Richmon. Cast: Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The star in question would be Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who's now well known for the TV series Modern Family, but has New York stage credits stretching back nearly 20 years (the 1990s revival of On the Town, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a handful of Shakespeare in the Park outings). Stepping into the role created by Mark Setlock (who, with Mode, supplied the characters based on their personal experiences at Bouley on the Upper East Side), Ferguson is tasked with playing phone greeter Sam, whose "office" in the basement of the hyper-popular eatery is the nerve center for the entire sold-out operation (the title is the chef-owner's clever term for "no seats available")and, shock of shocks, where the entire operation gets on his nerves. And, oh yes, a few dozen others who ring in for various reasons.
Movie stars (and their People) flexing their popularity muscles. Socialites ready and able to grease any palms necessary. Scam artists desperate for a seat. Employees trying to talk their way around the megalomaniacal chef whose monstrous "molecular gastronomy" concoctions seem to thrive on inedible substances ("smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco") was on a recent menuand, for that matter, the self-styled great man himself. And, naturally, those closest to Sam: his recently widowed father, his brother, his best friend, and the agent he's desperate to have get him a callback for a big new project at Lincoln Center. Anything to get away from the madness of the phones, is the subtext, but, really, he's a man doing what he hates in order to finance doing what he loves. Most of us have been there at one time or another.
The play is just as rife with other recognizable personalities that Ferguson depicts with thoughtful, and often hilarious, clarity, from his diverse coworkers (one is British, another is Indian or perhaps Pakistani) to the blaring customers (ranging from braying Upper West Side Jew to sniffing Hollywood know-it-alls and irritated out-of-towners) to the chef himself (a combination of the worst parts of Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain) to the lower-key occupants of the lowered tiers (in his gentle, milquetoast manner, Sam's dad all but advertises his slipping glasses and wrinkled plaid shirt). And they're all portrayed in one single, explosive stream of consciousness, with Sam's increasingly harried phone persona more and more giving way to these interlopers in the blink of an eye, with just a change in hand position or body language to tell you that the gender, the class, and the rules have changed quite drastically.
It's no small challenge to play this many people, in this quick of succession (the intermissionless evening, which barely stops for breath, runs 75 minutes), but Ferguson does it with effortless style; despite the wide assortment of crazies he must essay (some recurring, many one-offs), the rigorous track he keeps ensures that you're able to follow them all as closely as he does, eventually needing only the vocal cues to differentiate everyone.
Ferguson could, however, stand to up the volume a notch. As distinctive and delicious as all these creations are, they're not yet up to full Broadway size, and a few of them evaporate before they get much past row F or so. For as cackle-worthy as, say, the homing-missile-determined Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn is, someone else could use another minute or two on the stove; the chef, for example, never plays with quite the ruthless, self-centered evil he ought to, which harms things a bit when the plot begins to turn more completely around him.
If telling Sam's ongoing story is where Ferguson shines most brightlythe actor finds all the sensitivity within this man who's the victim and the unwilling target of others' connections finally realizing he has to use his own to get just a few table scrapsit's where things get a bit off-kilter. Director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) devotes most of his energy toward keeping the rhythm up early on, but they and the pace flag as Sam becomes embroiled in new indecencies and hardships. You get a bit of a sense that Ferguson is acting in a vacuum, with everything else not quite moving along with him, and that steals some of the breath from the final scenes that should be decisive.
With a set (by Derek McLane) and lights (Ben Stanton) that look as though Sam's subterranean domain is swirling upward in a cyclone of frenzied imagination (a working staircase is all but invisible behind a towering pallet of recent deliveries), this mounting makes it clear, however, that we don't stray far from Sam's mind. For better or worse, he's locked into his work, and we're going to be trapped in there with him, whether we like it or not.
Because of Ferguson's natural likability, and the play's essential, yet recognizable, silliness, we do, and pretty consistently. So what if our Food Network-saturated celebrity chef culture has made some of these targets so self-parodically ubiquitous that they don't stab with quite the sharpness they once did? There's still something for everyone on this menu, which makes Fully Committed the rare nutrition-free amuse-bouche that genuinely, unapologetically amuses.