In this special edition of Eater at the Movies, which usually focuses on food on film, Joshua David Stein goes live — to the theater.
Foam. No more contemptuous epithet has been launched at the project of molecular gastronomy than foam. Foam, worse than tweezer food. Foam, worse than infusion. Foam, worse than foraged. In fact, the only more cutting deprecation might be froth.
But froth and foam were on my mind as the curtain opened on Fully Committed, a play by Becky Mode, which opened last night at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. Fully Committed — the phrase is taken from the pretentious lingo of the New York restaurant world for "booked up" — concerns itself with the harried workday of Sam Callahan, a reservationist at what the script calls "a four-star, multiple-award-winning, ridiculously trendy Manhattan restaurant."
In this one-man show, Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays 40 characters with near-pitch perfection.
On the menu, of course, is foam: lavender foam and codfish foam, to be precise. Not to mention "crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt" and "smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco." It's safe to say Nathan Myhrvold would not appreciate the evening's view of his life's work.
That's not to say he wouldn't find the play enjoyable. It is a one-man show and that man, Modern Family's Emmy-nominated Jesse Tyler Ferguson, plays 40 characters with near-pitch perfection. (The director is, coincidentally, Pitch Perfect's Jason Moore.) Many of these voices, which are on the other side of a phone reservation line, are pitiful desperadoes, angling for a reservation. A few are co-workers, in varying degrees of vaguely sympathetic hue. There are scant good guys. One is Sam's father back in South Bend, Indiana. The other is his father's friend.
The unseen omnipotent godhead is, of course, the chef. And, given the low esteem in which Mode apparently holds the restaurant world, he is predictable, an impetuous pretentious d-bag who speaks like Rob Huebel and for whom Ferguson puffs out his chest and widens his stance, as if standard standing wouldn't accommodate his massive balls. In the words of Mode, the chef is "more like an overgrown frat boy than the international culinary sensation that he is." The maitre d', meanwhile, is a flamboyant Frenchman named Jean-Claude. Subtle, the play isn't.
Ferguson gamely toggles between the characters like Lee Evans in Funny Bones. Both his physical stamina and his dialect precision is impressive. Before one's eyes, Ferguson becomes Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn, an agitated socialite, Mrs. Sebag, an unpleasant housewife with a persecution complex and, my favorite, Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow's abrasively chipper personal assistant. Especially as the play unfolds, Sam grows wearier and wearier whilst his tormentors grow even more and more agitated — the twitchy modulation must be massively difficult to pull off. But this Ferguson does.
Nearly all of the characters in Fully Committed are caught in some cycle of suffering.
As opposed to other many charactered one-person shows like Sarah Jones' Sell/Buy/Date, nearly all of the characters in Fully Committed are caught in some cycle of suffering. In some ways, the nature of the restaurant and Sam's role as its gatekeeper all but ensures the relationship we see amounts to misery. But man, does Mode play it up.
Sam works in a basement, a convenient stand-in for Hades. When he is forced to invent a character to evade the wrath of Mrs. Sebag, he comes up with the name "Dante." Between the infantile imprecations of the chef, the demands of the clients, his own shit, and the malfeasance of his coworkers, Sam is stuck in some Michelin-rated bolgia.
For this, among other reasons, the play reminds of flipping through cartoonist William Steig's slim 1942 volume, The Lonely Ones, a book full of disparate lonely characters, whose piteous state is accompanied by gnomic captions. (See example, left.) There is no discernible order or relationship between the tortured characters found in Steig's book. They are united only by their communal loneliness. Similarly, there is not much of a discernible plot to be had in Mode's play. There are anecdotes and episodes and a vague feint at self-empowerment, but mostly it's just an infinite scroll of accents, affect, and attitude.
As a divertissement, Fully Committed excels. It is an amuse bouche, as there is no better way to pass an evening other than, perhaps, at Pasquale Jones, Cafe Altro Paradiso, or Le Turtle. But you'll never get a reservation there, anyway. As to whether the play is successful or not, that depends on what you think of foam. For me, foam is fun, but it will never a satisfying meal make.
Rating: Three out of five stars.
Fully Committed will run at New York City's Lyceum Theatre through July 24.