Is it my imagination, or has Broadway been taken over by the Jessies/Jesses of the foodservice trade? Jessie Mueller arrived April 24 at the Atkinson as a pie-making Waitress in a small-town Dixie diner, followed April 25 at the Lyceum by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, manning Reservations at a high-end, Fully Committed Manhattan eatery.
The title is ritzy restaurant parlance for “all booked up”—an illusion all dining establishments like to foster so the rich and famous will bray and bitch to get in. Telephone manners evidently have nothing to do with table manners, and Ferguson gets a 90-minute earful from an assortment of pedigrees, predominately pit-bull.
Tightly-wound and tightly-wired for action, he hits the ground running and doesn’t have a moment’s pause the whole performance, juggling the constant jingle-jangle of the reservations phone from indignant, impatient, demanding, entitled hoi polloi. Well, there is one pause you won’t want to know about—a bathroom break to clean up somebody else’s mess because all the busboys fled the building in horror.
Otherwise, the affable and eminently flappable Ferguson is deskbound in the boiler-room bowels of a super-chic restaurant in Lower Manhattan, a veritable Lord of the Rings fielding all sorts of impossible requests for “a nice table anywhere between 7:30 and 8.” Some customers have special needs beyond a reservation, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant who says the star thought the lighting too harsh at her table last time and wants to send over a flunky with a bulb that’ll give off a warmer glow for her meal. (Gwyneth also doesn’t care to have any female wait staffer working her table.)
Then there are the in-house battles that require refereeing—the snit-fit between the arrogant chef and the Bon Appetit editor who called his cuisine “edible dirt,” or the standoff between a belligerently persistent grande dame and the French maitre d’ who finds her just too ugly to talk to. All these plates of conflict keep spinning while his immediate superior is AWOL having a job interview at Bed, Bath and Beyond. His revenge: leaving his boss with all the lines of the phone lit up like angry red planets.
Being a fireball moving across such a tricky minefield is pretty exhausting work, and the smile of relief on Ferguson’s face at the curtain call was heartbreakingly big and genuine. It was obvious even from his entrance applause that the house was full of friends, none of them more than two degrees of separation from him.
The afterparty at Chelsea’s swank Eventi Hotel confirmed that. Sweetest of all was the 11th anniversary of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Ferguson’s Broadway debut). Lisa Howard, Derrick Baskin, Jose Llana and Sarah Saltzberg showed up to salute their co-star in his herculean solo effort. So did the show’s composer (William Finn), director (James Lapine), choreographer (Dan Knechtges) and producers (Carole Rothman and Barbara Whitman). Representing his Modern Family family: Eric Stonestreet.
Ferguson was plainly touched by the turn-out. “It was overwhelming, having all those people together tonight,” he admitted. “It’s been ten years since I’ve been on Broadway—I’ve certainly been around New York, doing Shakespeare in the Park—but I’ve wanted to do Broadway for a very long time. It’s an emotional night for me.”
He knows he could have made it easier on himself. “It definitely feels like an Everest climb, and just getting to opening night seems like it is a real achievement.”
How he got there, he hasn’t a clue. “I just had to. Fear is a great motivator. I wanted to do something that scared me, and this certainly scared me. I’m usually drawn to projects when I’m not doing Modern Family, and I like things that intimidate me.”
How many calls does he get per show? “Oh, God! I haven’t counted—and I don’t think I should.”
Even his director, Jason Moore, doesn’t know. “That’s a great question,” he said. “I don’t think we ever counted. It must be upward of 140 phone rings that come in.” The role of the reservations receiptionist requires that Ferguson also play his whole onslaught of callers. On opening night, that was three dozen strong, which is down six from the 42 that were originally advertised. “We just cut a few,” explained Moore, “to make things tighter and to consolidate a couple of the voices.”
As it is, the actor looks like he’s doing a slo-mo variation of the Saint Vitas Dance, jumping back and forth from caller to his sane self. “We always tried to find a gesture that was a transition between each character, so the gesture would help the audience understand he was talking to somebody new,” the director said.
With characters coming like comets, it’s easy to get lost in that maze of words. “Jesse started learning the piece early,” he said. “It’s a very mathematical kind of memorization. If you do a monologue, usually there’s a story to it so if you kinda get off track, you can paraphrase and get back on. With this, every phone call is a new idea.”
To receive calls from home in this subterranean frayed-nerve center, Ferguson has to place his cellphone atop an air-pipe. “That was my idea,” beamed Moore, “because 1) I wanted to include technology, and 2) I wanted a reason for him to have to move around, make it a little more farcical. Then he’d have to run around and do things. Most New Yorkers know about the cellphone on a pipe so it was a fun thing to do.”
“The original Fully Committed was more like a traditional Upper East Side restaurant, and we wanted this to be more of a trendy downtown restaurant. We kinda imagined it was probably a two-star restaurant in Tribeca that has a following all over the country. Jesse’s from Albuquerque and he has family in the Midwest, so we wanted to take advantage of a lot of accents and character types that he knows from his growing up so we changed quite a few of the types of characters.”
In long shot, the director and the actor could pass for brothers—and the similarities don’t stop with that, either: “Actually, we have the same birthdate—Oct. 22—and the same middle name. I’m Jason Tyler Moore, and he’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson.”
One celebrity didn’t make the opening-night cut. “We tried Justin Bieber [in the script] for two nights, and he just didn’t work out. This is a New York kind of show. Diane Sawyer, Alan Greenspan, Malcolm Gladwell—that’s a certain kind of celebrity. Justin Bieber is a different version of that, so we decided it would be best if we cut that reference.”
Becky Mode, the playwright, was glad to see The Bieber go. “We experimented. We ended up just moving Gwyneth a little farther up top because we didn’t want it to feel too Old World, but when Justin Bieber came to the restaurant, it felt like ‘This isn’t a New York restaurant. Justin Bieber isn’t here. He will never find this place.’”
There were plenty of other changes. “To me, it feels like a massive rewrite. I updated the technology and the food references and the rise of Celebrity Chef culture. And we had to figure out how to acknowledge the cellphone without letting it overtake the play. We had to do a celebrity update. Naomi Campbell became Gwyneth.”
Mode knows of what she writes. “I’ve worked in many, many restaurants. I was an actress who waitressed. I was a terrible waitress, but I did it over and over again.”
Douglas Aibel, artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre, was a first-nighter grinning ear to ear all evening since Fully Committed sprouted from his Vineyard, directed by the late Nicholas Martin. “Mark Setlock, who developed the characters with Becky, was the first show’s first star, and Roger Bart was the second,” Aibel recalled. “After the Vineyard run, we transferred to the Cherry Lane, where it ran for two years.”
There were other Vineyard connections to this revival, he was happy to point out: “Jason Moore directed his first play, Avenue Q, at the Vineyard—and Jesse has appeared in a couple of shows there as well. So there’s a warm family vibe about it.”
It’s nigh impossible to upstage a one-man show, but set designer Derek McLane has given it his best shot with a cluster of tables and chairs hovering over a basement reservation office. “I call it The Tornado of Chairs,” he said. “It’s meant to reflect the chaos of the whole reservations system. And all the pipes I based on the old Union Square Café reservations room, which I actually visited and photographed. Once upon a time, the reservations room was in the basement there. It looked like a boiler room. The back of the set is a wine wall, and there are 900 bottles on the wall.”
Scott Hart, who operates the restaurant 44 & X (at, where else, West 44th and Tenth Avenue) in Ferguson’s old neighborhood, was table-hopping at the party, testifying to the truth of the above. “I thought Jesse did a fabulous job at nailing this calamitous business,” he trilled enthusiastically. Creating cocktail puns is a specialty of the house. Currently topping the bill there are The Wicked Ozmopolitan and The Hamilgin. “I think we’re going to have do a Fully Committed cocktail for sure.”