Friday, May 6, 2016

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is fully engaged in 'Fully Committed'

I really enjoyed the first half hour of Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s one-man play featuring Jess Tyler Ferguson as Sam Callaghan, an actor working as a reservations manager at “a world-renowned, ridiculously red-hot Manhattan restaurant.” It was the remaining hour that bored me as the same jokes were repeated over and over in what is really a long “Saturday Night Live” type skit than a play.

Under the direction of Jason Moore, Ferguson, a theatre veteran well known now for his role on “Modern Family,” plays more than 40 characters, mostly callers desperately trying to get reservations or others who work at the restaurant where dinner prices range between $250 and $350 a person and which bills its food as “molecular gastronomy.” Among the offering for one night are “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt, smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco and nitro-frozen shaved foie gras enshrouded in a liquid chicken-filled orb.”

Sam works nonstop, pushing buttons to answer the phone, listening to desperate pleadings, putting callers on hold, checking computerized schedules and darting across the room to deal with the diva chef on another line. Ferguson handles the part with the right level of intensity and humor. I only wish he had had a more developed play with which to work.

One of the funniest callers was Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant, whom Ferguson portrays in an extremely gay voice (actually many of his characters sound a bit like gay men, even a southern woman). Paltrow strikes me as one of the more self-involved of the Hollywood set, and Bryce’s requests reflect that. He says Gwyneth wants to come in this weekend — the restaurant is always booked three months in advance, hence the title fully committed — and wants a “round, freestanding table,” no legumes, a male-only waitstaff, “an all-vegan tasting menu that’s a locally-sourced, no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no- rice, no-foam, no-corn tasting menu for 15, okay?”

This is in Bryce’s first call. Several more with Paltrow’s queenly demands are made and are funny in their narcissistic precision. Bryce calls back later to say, “When Gwyneth was in last time, she found the lighting a little harsh, so if table 17 is too close to the sconce, rather than change tables, what she’d like to do is change bulbs, from whatever it is you’re using to something a little softer, which we would be more than happy to supply. . . Sam, don’t worry! I’ll send my assistant over and we’ll take care of it. . . His name is Tasha and I’ll have him run over with some Edison bulbs at like 5:00.”

It’s a delightful mocking of today’s shallow celebrities. Among the other A-listers with reservations or hoping to get them are Malcolm Gladwell, Helen Mirren and Diane Sawyer.

As if his job isn’t miserable enough with all its stress, Sam’s working environment is dismal, a basement office with exposed pipes, ancient filing cabinets and a metal table holding the ever-ringing phone. Derek McLane’s set is appropriately unappealing, making Sam’s “day job” seem even more like hell.

Fully Committed was first produced Off-Broadway in 1999. Mode, who based the play on her experience working in the high-end restaurant world, updated the script to reflect today’s foodie (I detest that word and all it stands for) culture and obsession with off-beat cuisine and status restaurants. It plays the Lyceum Theatre through July 24.

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