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Theatre in Review: Fully Committed (Lyceum Theatre)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Photo: Joan Marcus

The most delicious case of multiple personality disorder you've ever seen is on display at the Lyceum, where Jesse Tyler Ferguson is impersonating Sam, the harried reservationist at a red-hot Manhattan restaurant, and everyone else in Fully Committed. The conceit of Becky Mode's comedy, which had a substantial Off Broadway run at the turn of the century, is that a single actor handles roughly 40 roles, including the restaurant's nest-of-vipers staff and the legion of the moneyed, famous, and just plain self-aggrandizing, all determined to claw their collective way into the dining room for an 8:00 Saturday dinner at table 31.

The cast of hilariously self-absorbed Manhattanites, plus a few out-of-towners with great aspirations, includes the bellicose Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn ("First of all, I've been holding for ten minutes! Number two, you have to do something about that music. The crescendos are really very piercing."); the booming, patrician Bunny Vandevere ("Now I know it's last-minute, but Mr. Vandevere and I want to come in tonight with our good friend Malcolm Gladwell, and we can be very flexible -- anywhere between 7:30 and 8:00."); the magnolia-voiced Mrs. Winslow ("Are you sure you don't have anything, darlin'? We're just two teeny tiny people."); the mobbed-up Dominic Veccini, who wants the waiters to serenade his parents, who are celebrating their anniversary, with "The Lady is a Tramp;" and Bryce, from Gwyneth Paltrow's office, who wants "a locally sourced, no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no-rice, no-foam, no-corn tasting menu for 15." He adds that he's sending over new bulbs for the lighting sconces, for a softer look on his boss' face.

Sam must wrangle this crew, and many more, because his two coworkers have failed to show up; meanwhile, there is chaos upstairs in the restaurant. A photographer from Bon App├ętit has been left waiting for hours, prompting a stream of abusive calls from the magazine; the chef -- the kind of poseur who sprinkles his entrees with edible dirt -- is having a meltdown because the reservation of his mentor, a foodie world rock star, has been lost; Alan Greenspan has been given a table in Siberia; and an extreme case of digestive distress has befouled the men's room in the middle of the lunch rush. Meanwhile, Sam, who just lost a boyfriend and whose acting career is stalled, makes desperate calls of his own to his agent, hoping for a callback at Lincoln Center. There's also that helicopter to be ordered so the chef can fly out to the Hamptons and cook for the Clintons. And Sam also has to explain to his sweet, recently widowed father that he can't come home for Christmas because he'll be at work, fending off the customers.

In some ways a New Yorker cartoon brought to life, thanks to its breezily incisive view of modern Manhattan manners, Fully Committed is a sly exercise in one-man farce, as the phone keeps ringing, the demands keep escalating, and Sam must juggle an ever-growing number of apoplectic personalities. Only the most technically skilled and gifted actors need apply for this daunting task, and it's a pleasure to report that Ferguson is more than up to the task. A naturally relaxed performer, he starts off casually, ratcheting up the action to panic level by degrees, slipping in and out of characters in five seconds or less. Even so, his touch remains infinitely light; he never, ever presses for a laugh. He also has a faultless ear for the absurdity hidden in his many characters' dialogue, best summed up by his agent's personal assistant's attempt at offering a bit of consolation: "You need to focus on all the victories you've had. You had the Pippin tour last year. You came very close on the HBO thing. The Neosporin commercial." And nothing is more delightful than the moment when, having gotten his lazy, absent supervisor in major trouble with his boss, Ferguson executes a little chorus-boy dance of joy around the room.

Mode has deftly updated her 1999 script to celebrity chefs, artisanal foods and Yelp. Some have complained that the idea of a professional reservationist is out of date in 2016, but it is true that many ultra-exclusive restaurants still rely on the telephone, especially for their upper-tier clients. (Think of the special phone number to Waverly Inn, known only to the great and good, handed out by the owner, Graydon Carter, to his famous friends.) In any case, she orchestrates the mounting chaos with seamless skill, to the point where merely the sound of a character's voice is enough to earn a sustained laugh.

For those who worried that Fully Committed might seem lost in a large Broadway house, Derek McLane has devised an elegant solution, creating a squalid basement "office" framed by steam pipes and cheerlessly decorated for the holidays with a few colored lights. Behind it, however, the designer has audaciously arranged a curving stairway, rising into the flies, consisting of seemingly carelessly tossed-about restaurant chairs. This is backed by a tower wall of wine racks, which, in Ben Stanton's lighting design, are illuminated in a variety of saturated colors. It's a scenery-and-lighting combination that provides a touch of spectacle while preserving an intimate playing area. Sarah Laux dresses Ferguson attractively in a kind of starving-actor-chic look. Darron L West provides solid reinforcement for Jeff Richmond's Lalo Schifrin-style theme music, as well as such effects as the rattling of pipes, a montage of phone calls, and a nifty closing bit of "The Lady is a Tramp."

Despite his success on the hit sitcom Modern Family, Ferguson has returned to New York at regular intervals, burnishing his skill in a variety of clown roles at Shakespeare in the Park. The fleet and funny Fully Committed proves to be an ideal vehicle for him, letting him display his full range of comic skills. If you see it, you'll be chuckling for days at the memory of Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn's leather-lunged voice. -- David Barbour


(26 April 2016)

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