Ten years ago, Jesse Tyler Ferguson was seen on Broadway in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an ensemble musical comedy. On April 25, the man of Modern Family fame returns to his roots, this time in a one-man straight play. Don’t worry; it’s still a comedy. In fact, it’s also a homecoming for comedic director Jason Moore (Avenue Q, Pitch Perfect) after his foray into Hollywood.
But Ferguson and Moore are not just talents, they’re innovators. So the revival, which debuted Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 1999, has been updated by playwright Becky Mode to suit Moore’s vision and Ferguson’s gifts.
The show’s producers first approached Mode to ask how she felt about making changes to her finished work about an out-of-work actor/reservationist at one of New York’s hottest restaurants and the cast of characters (played by that same actor) dialing in. “At first it was a little scary, the thought of it. Anything you finish you’re like, ‘Wait, it’s not finished?’ she says. “[It was] also a little intimidating to figure out what to change and what not to change because it was a play that worked in its time in its way.”
Moore’s input and direction allowed Mode to reimagine and spice up the original enough to make it feel fresh without changing the structure that made the show funny in the first place.
“It was just done in London as originally written, and now that I think about the updates, I feel that that was an inspired move,” says Mode. “I feel like certain things were surgically altered, the essential shape of the play is very much the same.”
Most of the alterations serve to create a more contemporary context for the show. “There’s a sense of the changing technology,” Mode explains. “There’s a sense of the celebrity chef culture that has exploded in a different way than it had the first time around. The types of cuisine that’s on the menu in this particular restaurant is very different than last time.”
It’s all in the details. “Every single food item is different and that’s been a hoot,” says Mode. “It infuses the whole play and gives it a new flavor.”
She also wanted to tailor the show to her new leading man. “Some of the personal stuff I feel like we’ve textured and beefed up a little bit,” she says. (Any wonder that she wrote a play set in a restaurant?)
“Making the comedy work is a combination of several things,” says Moore. “One: The script has to be funny. If the script isn’t funny, the actors have nothing to build on.”
“I’d seen Fully Committed years ago, I thought it was incredibly funny [because] it’s based on a really relatable true situation,” says Moore. As far as theatre goes, “the more based in truth it is, the funnier it is,” which speaks to Moore’s push for updates in the first place.
“I think part of the job of the director in a comedy is to assemble those right people and create a safe place where everybody can feel comfortable being totally weird and failing,” Moore continues. In other words, Moore wanted to create one giant test kitchen in hopes he could whip up the perfect dish.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.