Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Mitchell on Modern Family, is starring on Broadway in Fully Committed, portraying Sam, a struggling actor who works as a reservations clerk at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, as well as some 40 characters with whom Sam interacts. It’s a soufflé of a show being sold as a full expensive meal.
Ferguson certainly belongs on Broadway. His well-deserved TV popularity can presumably draw in a crowd, and at the same time he has New York stage experience going back almost 20 years, and continuing even now, regularly playing comic characters in the Public Theater’s summer Shakespeare in the Park productions. There’s even some symmetry between the actor and the play: They are both charming, amiable, and funny in an unthreatening way; they both have achieved unexpected success – Fully Committed is frequently performed throughout the country. Both even started their careers at roughly the same time. But I wonder whether there is a better choice of vehicle out there to deliver Ferguson’s talents to a Broadway audience.
I saw Becky Mode’s play in 1999 at the 180-seat Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theater. It starred Mark Setlock, who is credited with creating many of the characters. It had a minimal set by James Noone, and was a modest, diverting evening, an impressive showcase for the performer’s mimicry.
Now, Fully Committed is being presented at Broadway’s 950-seat Lyceum Theater, with a set by Derek McLane that has been featured in Architectural Digest. Inspired by the actual former basement reservations room of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, it includes cluttered desks, 903 wine bottles, low-hanging plumbing pipes, and on top of it all, a collage of chairs, a metaphor for the chaos of a fancy restaurant.
The set somewhat dwarfs the actor who, over the course of 80 minutes, mostly sits at his desk answering one telephone call after another. He takes reservations from regulars, rubes, mobsters, socialites and celebrities all vying to get a seat at the table. He also takes guff from a coked-up cook, a vulgar haranguing chef, an obnoxious co-worker named Bob who is AWOL, leaving Sam overwhelmed. The satire is amusing, albeit mild and familiar. The unnamed restaurant serves “molecular gastronomy.” A sample dish: “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt.” Bryce, Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s assistant, tells Sam: “Gwyneth would like to come in this weekend with fifteen people, on Saturday night at 8 p.m., and she’s gonna need a round, freestanding table…And no female waitstaff at the table.”
A gift for vocal impersonations is not, as it turns out, in Ferguson’s wheelhouse. He’s no Robin Williams or Rich Little. But, if too many of the characters are indistinct and too few are all that interesting, one stands out. Ferguson is a terrific Sam, whom we get to know in his conversations with his recently widowed father back in Ohio, his friend and rival actor – they’re both waiting for a call-back after an audition at Lincoln Center — even in the patience and the decency with which he treats some of the most difficult callers.
The best moment in the show is after the chef is made aware that Bob, Sam’s co-worker, was the one who messed up a reservation, not Sam. Sam performs a little, private dance of triumph that’s pure Jesse Tyler Ferguson.