Broadway Playwright Becky Mode on Fully Committed's Celebrity Swaps and Prime Time Dry-Runs
Ever wonder what it’s like to work the reservation line for the trendiest restaurant in NYC? 16 years ago, playwright Becky Mode channeled that experience into her hit comedy Fully Committed, and she’s since recrafted the hilarious one-man-show for Modern Family’s Jesse Ferguson. Now on Broadway through July 31, Ferguson plays 40 entitled callers and the one down-on-his-luck actor stuck manning the phones. Here, Mode, the former TV writer for Smash, talks to Food & Wine about updating her work for the modern food obsessive and her own dietary quirks.
The play features an offstage guest. How did you decide to swap the culinary icon Tim Zagat for the British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal?
Everyone had an opinion about that. There were lots of contenders. Not all of them were in the food world, interestingly enough. And we really thought about keeping Zagat because there’s certainly still the name recognition. But other celebrity chefs were suggested: Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Paul Bocuse... We were trying to think of culinary superstars and tastemakers and powerhouses. It couldn’t really be a reviewer because the show has to do with making a reservation and they don’t really announce themselves... But I like how Heston Blumenthal works. I’m very happy with it because I feel like, from what I’ve been able to glean, the greatest celebrity to a chef is another chef.
The other celebrity namedrop that I really got a kick out of was Gwyneth Paltrow (a Naomi Campbell swap) with her dietary restrictions: all vegan, no legumes, no corn. It made me wonder. Is there anything you personally wouldn’t eat?
I wish there were more things I wouldn’t eat. The only thing I can’t stand are beets. I don’t know. My grandmother made too much borscht? Unlike my children, I am not a picky eater. It’s funny though. Every once in a while, there’s a beet salad or beet ravioli, and I know what it’s like to be a picky eater because I’m like “Not this! No!” But no. Sadly, I eat it all.
You’ve updated the restaurant's cuisine to skewer molecular gastronomy dishes that have been “dusted with edible dirt” and “infused with pipe tobacco.” Are those dishes made up or borrowed from real life?
I think they’re sort of hybrids, you know. Some were tidbits of real things I saw online. Some were invented. At this point, it’s a combination of fictional and real.
Do you know how the play has been received by restaurateurs?
It’s been incredible... Danny Meyer brought us in. And the producers took us on a couple of research trips, which were amazing for “in process,” so we went to Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku. The restaurant community has been very embracing, like Mario Batali came and Padma Lakshmi. And Bobby Flay came and Danny Meyer. Years ago he brought his whole reservation staff… They’ve opened up their whole reservation office to us. They were very embracing. So that’s very gratifying. Also the whole reservation staff for ABC Kitchen came in and to me those are the highest VIPs. I love when they come and they’re like “That’s our job.” It was so cute: For opening night, Jesse gave me a gift certificate from the ABC Kitchen. And he was saying, “They’re expecting your call.”
I’m going to switch gears because I know that you worked on the TV series Smash, about putting on a Broadway musical. Did you learn anything there that prepared you for the real thing?
You know in a funny way, the experience of working on Smash was good preparation for this because it was such a complicated show and there were so many different components to it. Even though this is just one actor—Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s the loveliest person in the world—we were making changes fast during previews… and then we made last minute changes. So it helped to have done the TV version of putting on a Broadway show and then here we were putting on a Broadway show. It never got as hairy as it got on Smash. It was a charmed process… Unlike Smash, there was no backbiting. There was no All About Eve.
There were some incredibly powerful women on Smash: Bernadette Peters, Anjelica Huston, Megan Hilty. Is there a woman you’d like to see helm Fully Committed? Give me some of your choices.
Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Tina Fey… Any of those comic visionaries who also emanate a warmth and humanity. To me, it’s a very delicate balance to find the right kind of star for the show because the show is about somebody who is not a star. So you don’t want to have an actor’s personal celebrity eclipse the truth of the character. And Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] somehow manages to do that seamlessly partly because he’s not just a celebrity persona; he’s a real actor.
Becky Mode’s Fully Committed with Jesse Tyler Ferguson is playing now through July 31 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York, NY. For tickets, go to fullycommittedbroadway.com or call 212-239-6200.