Jesse Tyler Ferguson returns to Broadway in Becky Mode's solo comedy.
"Fully committed" is the best way to describe Jesse Tyler Ferguson, tireless star of the 80-minute shtick-fest currently making its Broadway debut at the Lyceum Theatre. He left the New York stage 10 years ago as Leaf Coneybear — the "not-that-smart" ensemble member of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — but he has returned a bona fide TV star with an entire theater all to himself. The scenery is his to chew, and he does it with all the charisma that earned him his devout Modern Family fan base. But when you're chewing on dust, even a tour de force can't entirely compensate for a flavorless show.
Though Ferguson is the first to lend his voice to Becky Mode's multicharacter solo comedy on a Broadway stage, Fully Committed has been floating around since 1999. Mark Setlock launched its impressive two-year off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, followed by a stint at the Cherry Lane where the role was eventually taken over by Broadway hams Roger Bart and Christopher Fitzgerald (both of whom happen to be back on Broadway this season in Disaster! and Waitress, respectively).
Fully Committed's modest downtown houses may have been a better fit for the piece, which is light on both plot and jokes. Its character switcharoos are the primary source of entertainment, and even in one of Broadway's smallest houses, the comic effect of Ferguson's rapid-fire metamorphoses dissipates over the first five rows of the theater.
Like a Tazmanian Devil of accents and phone choreography (orchestrated by Avenue Q director Jason Moore), Ferguson flips manically between dozens of characters. He does a fine job giving each of these folks distinct voices, but despite the play's boisterous backbone, Ferguson is at his best with the subtler characters — most notably Sam, a struggling New York actor and our central protagonist. His wayward career has landed him a job as a reservation-line receptionist at a restaurant for pretentious foodies who get off on shelling out $300 for plates of edible dirt. This sarcastic nod to modern molecular gastronomy, along with a few other contemporary cultural references (including a shoutout to Yelp, home of the populist Internet review) helps keep the piece current, but still, the pretense as a whole feels mildly outdated.
With the experience of phone reservations all but gone from the zeitgeist, there are only so many knowing laughs Mode's play can still elicit via Sam's frantic headset antics. Most of her characters (or caricatures, to be more precise) are the obnoxious customers who incessantly call and get put on hold as they desperately attempt to make a reservation at the exalted restaurant. There's Gwyneth Paltrow's ditsy yet demanding personal assistant, some wealthy socialites, and oblivious tourists who don't seem to comprehend that "fully committed" means "no room for your plebian self." Sam also gets regular calls from his hyper-masculine chef, a shady coworker who is conspicuously absent from the office, and his sweet old father who nudges him to book a flight home for Christmas.
Swirled into all this spiel is actually a poignant family story, as well as the timeless angst of an actor waiting for his big break. The one phone call Sam is genuinely hoping to receive is from his agent, who, with any luck, will tell him he landed a callback for Malvolio in a Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night. This is the dream he clings to as he slaves away in his cluttered basement office. Derek McLane designs the space to appropriately dreary effect, framing it with dusty pipes and beige filing cabinets, topped with the depressing accent of a tacky silver Christmas tree. He also gives a little tip of the hat to the ostentatious restaurant overhead, with a tornado of chairs hovering above the stage like an overrated modern-art installation.
Unfortunately, with a whole field of multicharacter solo shows that have been building on Mode's prototype since 1999, the element of innovation that Fully Committed once had on its side is missing in the Fully Committed of 2016. Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg have followed her formula to a T with their own phone-centric off-Broadway comedies Craving for Travel and Application Pending, while Jonathan Tolins hit a theatrical vein with his long-running Buyer & Cellar — which, interestingly enough, was originally written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The small-screen favorite is clearly among the rare breed of performers built for this demanding genre, with the added bonus of a recognizable TV name that could produce a few Broadway converts. Fully Committed, however, may not be the right vehicle to win return customers.