by Ryan Leeds
Solo shows are like first dates: One can usually tell within the first 15 minutes whether or not there’s a spark. For the impatient New Yorker, one might whittle that down to five to ten. Nonetheless, whether or not chemistry exists, two parties enter into an agreement that they will spend a planned amount of time together and make the best of the situation.
With solo shows, a similar dynamic exists: a fast rapport must happen between the audience and the performer or else the rest of the evening is going to drag. So it was with a bit of hesitation that I decided to spend an evening with Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
I’ve never been a huge fan of television’s Modern Family star, but I figured I would leave all preconceived notions and expectations at the door and go along with him on his dissection of the elite culinary world in Broadway’s Fully Committed. It’s not that I have a personal vendetta towards him; I just fail to “get” his sense of humor. It often feels as though as he is wearing his quirkiness on his sleeve and is trying too hard to garner laughs. I realize that I am in the minority, especially since the audience (including celebrity chef Bobby Flay who was seated two rows ahead of me) was laughing out loud.
Becky Mode’s play, which originally opened Off Broadway in 1999, takes place in the dank basement of a haute cuisine Manhattan restaurant where pretentious items like “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt” abound in a restaurant focused on molecular gastronomy. Sam (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is the harried reservationist who fields calls from a multitude of diners.
Ferguson voices every customer from Bunny Vandevere, a socialite whose husband “may have invented Botox,” to Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn, a pushy New Yorker who desperately needs to speaks with and/or complain to Jean-Claude, the restaurant’s head chef. Ferguson also impersonates the establishment’s entire staff, as well as his own widowed father, a kindly midwestern man. While I still don’t consider myself an enthusiast, I must admit that Ferguson’s flexibility takes an intense amount of focus and his work here is an accomplishment.
Derek McLane’s set is impressive, with sky-high racks of wine shelving and piping that enhances the gloomy basement setting. But he’s also decided to stack chairs to the ceiling, a device that has been used in two recent Broadway shows (The Color Purple and Doctor Zhivago). Did I miss my invitation to the Ionesco fan club?
Fully Committed seems to be swallowed up the massive house at the Lyceum Theatre and would seem more fitting if it had returned to a more intimate venue like the Vineyard Theatre where it originated. The material itself is humorous and is especially appealing to those connected to a restaurant and hospitality industries. Still, it seems like a plate of hors d’oeuvres at a party: If the tray passes in front of you, you’ll probably eat one and enjoy it, but there’s no real reason to seek it out.
149 West 45th Street, NYC
Through July 24
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.