No prime-time sitcom star returns to the theater more faithfully than Jesse Tyler Ferguson. If it’s hiatus season, the genial actor — who’s been playing straitlaced gay lawyer Mitchell on ABC’s Modern Family for seven seasons — can often be found spouting Shakespeare in New York City’s open-air Delacorte Theater, serving up an impressive range of shrewd servants, drunken jesters, and long-lost nearly identical twins. Now, he’s taken his act indoors, to Broadway, with Becky Mode’s 1999 restaurant-biz send-up, Fully Committed.
It’s a smart move: a one-man, 30-plus-character, 90-minute comedy where he can flex his impressive comic muscles in four-walled, air-conditioned comfort. (No offense, Shakespeare in the Park, but those mosquitos can be pesky on an 80-degree July night.) Mode’s main character is Sam, an actor by trade and reservationist by necessity. He’s had some success — a Pippin tour, a Neosporin ad — but he’s now forced to return to his high-pressure day job: manning the constantly ringing phones at an unnamed, astonishingly pretentious, totally booked (“fully committed”) New York restaurant. That’s where the numerous other colorful characters that Ferguson portrays come in. Among them: the snooty, heavily-accented maître d, Jean-Claude; the extremely proper Park Avenue matron Bunny Vandevere (“We can be very flexible — anywhere between, say, 7:30 and 8 o’clock.”); a Mafioso named Dominic Veccini (he wants the waiters to sing “The Lady Is a Tramp” to his parents); Bryce, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s office (Gwyneth has numerous demands, the simplest of which is an all-vegan tasting menu for 15); and assorted other annoying, solicitous, uppity, and sometimes even courteous would-be patrons.
Ferguson juggles all of these personalities rather deftly, making only a few fumbles. It takes about three calls for the ego-tastic chef to really take shape, and reservations manager Bob never really becomes instantly identifiable. (Unlike, say, his aw-shucks Midwestern dad, who signs off every call with “adios, amigo!”)
Mode gave her script a 2016 update, inserting references to Yelp and Open Table, raising the menu’s prices from $100–$200 to $250–$350 per person, and even changing the restaurant’s cuisine. In the original Off-Broadway version, it was “global fusion,” sample dish: “herb-crusted grouper speckled with fresh hyssop oil on a bed of wild ramps.” Now, it’s “molecular gastronomy,” sample dish: “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt.” (One reference that didn’t need a change: Diane Sawyer, who’s still a VIP in the reservation book.)
Yet one can’t help but wish that for his Broadway return — Ferguson’s last Main Stem appearance was in 2005, as the “not that smart” but totally endearing Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — Ferguson had chosen something more substantial. Fully Committed is full of laughs, but leaves you wanting more. As would, one imagines, the chef’s smoked cuttlefish risotto in a pipe tobacco–infused cloud of dry ice. B+