Bells Are Ringing

(Photo by Monique Carboni/McLane Studio)

A one-set show unfurling in a basement office, with a frenzied actor in a one-man tour-de-force racing around his desk: That sets the stage for Fully Committed, with sets by Tony Award-winning scenic designer Derek McLane, and starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Sam, the harried reservation clerk in an upscale restaurant where seats are as scarce as hens’ teeth. Except…

One of the main set elements is a tornado of 204 brown restaurant chairs, tumbling from the grid toward the stage. McLane sourced them at a restaurant supply store and attached them together with lots of airplane cable holding them up. So while erstwhile diners can’t book a seat, the set is awhirl with them, as they create a metaphor for the play—trying to get a seat at this restaurant. “I like that the tornado of chairs feels sculptural, and has whimsy to it,” says McLane. 

When the curtain goes up, the set is greeted with a round of applause. “It’s quite tall and creates a surprising image with the tornado of chairs,” notes McLane. “And the pre-show music, with all the phones ringing that goes into jazz with phones and a hum of activity. It has this madcap, kooky quality, then the curtain goes up, and you see this crazy concoction on stage. It all seems to go together.”

Rough sketch by Derek McLane

McLane approached this one-set show the way he would approach anything else: “What is the story the director and I want to tell?” he asks. In this case, it is the story of two different worlds—the private grungy office where Sam works and the fancy world of the restaurant upstairs with its wall of wine and a difficult chef.

“I wanted to make the basement not depressing, but something both charming and hilarious, and at the same time, large enough to command a Broadway stage,” McLane explains. “The office is modeled on an old reservation room at the Union Square Cafe. I looked at their reservation room from when they first opened; it had a very low ceiling with a lot of pipes.” The pipe concept was transferred to the set, with beleaguered Sam having to put his cell phone on the corner of the pipes to get service in the basement, as his dad calls from South Bend and his fellow actor friends call about auditions and call-backs at Lincoln Center.

Photo by Monique Carboni/McLane Studio

Above all this is an imposing wall of wine: 903 wine bottles of different shapes slotted into a steel frame upstage that measures 30' high by 34'3" wide, and was built by Proof Productions in Philadelphia. “I drank a lot of wine at a lot of expensive restaurants to get the feel of that,” McLane confesses. “The bottles are filled with colored water, but we had a vintner cork and cap them so they look realistic. We also made about 100 different wine labels, so they don’t repeat too often; my associate Erica Hemminger led the design for those. You can’t really see the difference but you could tell if they were all the same,” McLane adds. “It looks better with more different labels, different colors of wine, and different bottle styles.”

Rendering courtesy of Derek McLane

Back in the basement, the action is a ballet of telephones. The cell phone, the reservations phone, which has at least four lines ringing at all times, the in-house phone to call upstairs, and the red phone that is the hot line to and from the chef. “Jesse worked it out with the director, with phones on the desk and the red phone on the wall, in a one-week workshop I was able to see,” explains McLane. “Then we worked out where the phones needed to be on the set, and also worked out how he would move about in the space during that workshop.

There are two other small desks in the basement, as it’s meant to be an office for three, but the other people weren’t there that day so Sam is alone. But the day’s events allow Sam to start developing a sense of empowerment, as his agent is telling him to do, and as he runs up the stairs at the end, one hopes he is leaving for good. Fully Committed also provides the audience with a glimpse at what goes on in the rarified restaurant world where power and influence are wielded to try and get a seat.

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