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How Becky Mode updated her restaurant comedy for a Top Chef world
Becky Mode couldn't wait to write about edible dirt.
That menu affectation didn't yet exist when she wrote her 1999 comedy Fully Committed, in which a single actor plays both Sam (a harried reservations agent at a popular restaurant) and the many patrons who beg him for a table. When Mode was recently approached to revise the play for the current Broadway production starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, she jumped at the chance to skewer the latest restaurant fads and pretensions.
The new staging, which is now in previews at the Lyceum, has also allowed Mode to take another look at Sam. He was originally played by the actor Mark Setlock, who was in his early 30s at the time, but Ferguson, who is well known for his role on Modern Family, is 40. That alters the stakes for the character.
"It gave me the opportunity to tailor the character more to who Jesse is," Mode says. "Originally Sam was a young actor waiting for his first break. With Jesse, it made more sense to create a character who had had some success and a career, but who was hitting a dry spell and was reaching that moment where he wonders, 'Should I continue the thing I love to do?'
"I really enjoyed that change in particular because you have more sympathy for somebody who is asking those questions a little further down the pike. And Jesse is just so lovable, and it plays to that."
Meanwhile, when the show was first produced, Julia Child was still on TV, The Barefoot Contessa hadn't yet kicked off her heels for a national audience, and Top Chef winner Kristen Kish was still eating lunches at her junior high school cafeteria.
"Chefs are now global brands, and the cult of food has only grown more spectacular," Mode says. "I felt we had to reflect that in who the chef [in the play] was. So now our chef has an agent, publicist and his own cuisine."
Then there's the question of that edible dirt. Menu items at the original production's fictional restaurant included references to wilted spinach and ramps. "I thought they were exotic then, and they got laughs, but now you could practically have those things in a Chipotle," Mode quips.
But while exotic ingredients and preparations may change, the general public's skepticism is a constant. For Mode, a favorite new moment comes when Ferguson (as Sam) lists some outré menu items to a stunned Midwestern caller. The actor then switches roles to become the startled tourist, who on hearing a single familiar word responds, "Oh, good! You have chicken."
Other updates include the celebrities trying to get tables – Naomi Campbell has been replaced by Gwyneth Paltrow – and the technology on hand. Mode notes, however, that even some au courant eateries are surprisingly low-tech.
All this research may prove doubly useful, since Mode's next project is a new AMC series titled Feed the Beast. As she says, the turf is familiar: "It's about an alcoholic sommelier and cokehead chef."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Fully Committed. Go here to browse our current offers.
Photos by Joan Marcus.