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For Once, Restaurant Work Pays

A pair draw on their past for a wickedly funny inside look at trendy eateries.

September 03, 2000|ROBERT BURNS | Robert Burns is a Times staff writer

Tim and Nina Zagat's reservation is lost, and they are waiting--waiting!--in the lounge.

Naomi Campbell wasn't happy with the lighting the last time she was in--it was a bit harsh. How far is her table away from the sconce? Can her assistant's assistant drop by with a softer bulb?

Bunny Vandervere needs a last-minute reservation. But she's very flexible--any time between 7:30 and 8 would be fine.

Welcome to the life of the "reservationist" at the unnamed, booked-months-in-advance Upper East Side restaurant in "Fully Committed." The off-Broadway hit comes to Los Angeles' Coronet Theatre on Sept. 12.

The one-man comedy moves at a frenetic pace as Sam, an actor/reservation clerk at the swanky eatery, deals with dozens of psychos on the phone while trying to score audition callbacks and working to arrange to see his widowed father for Christmas.

Assuming more than 30 voices in the show--from the egotistical and insecure chef to socialites and mob men--is Mark Setlock, a 32-year-old actor who spent two years answering phones at the now-defunct Bouley, which, for a time, was the restaurant in New York--if you could get in.

"I truly hated it," Setlock says of his reservation days. "Not only was it a lot of stress, most of the people you're dealing with are not accustomed to hearing 'no.' And the phones never stopped ringing."

The behind-the-curtain look at upscale restaurants has touched a nerve. Folks from all levels of the food chain are streaming to New York's Cherry Lane Theatre to see "Fully Committed." The title refers to what Sam is supposed to tell would-be patrons when the restaurant is full. It's so much classier than "booked."

All the positive buzz has placed Setlock on the other end of the phone in real life. "Suddenly, I'm invited to really nice restaurants by the owners," says Setlock, whose first major theater gig was in "Rent" in New York in 1996. He spent 3 1/2 years as a cast member and understudy in the musical.

Not benefiting food-wise from her hit show is playwright and new mother Becky Mode. Having a baby in the house means "a lot of Chinese take-in."

Mode, 35, met Setlock in the early 1990s when they were at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Both found themselves in New York to pursue acting careers and, shockingly, ended up working in restaurants.

But once in New York, Mode, who's originally from Washington, decided to quit acting.

"I don't think I was that good, truthfully," Mode said in a telephone interview from her Brooklyn home. "People always said, 'If you can do something else, do it.' I didn't know what that meant until I went to New York. I didn't want it enough. You've got to want to act really badly to keep it up."

After "flailing around for quite a while," Mode discovered writing. "I was lucky enough to meet a guy--a writer in kids' TV--who mentored me."

Mode worked a lot of restaurant jobs during that flailing period. She spent days as a coat checker, waitress, bartender and even overlapped in Bouley's reservation room with Setlock.

Unlike Setlock, she's pretty positive about her days in food service.

Waitressing is a good job when you're pursuing other options, Mode says. "But it can wear on your ego. It's definitely hard that way. But there's something kind of fun about it. The anthropology is a hoot; it's pretty interesting to observe what's going on."

Those observations made for inspiration and material for her play.

"When I first started waiting tables in New York, I knew there was a restaurant play somewhere," says Mode, whose TV writing credits include children's shows for Disney, HBO and Nickelodeon, and, more recently, "Cosby."

Mode and Setlock traded restaurant stories, with Setlock creating different voices. "The characters sprung from our conversations," Mode says.

"We answered the phones together for a short time," Setlock says. "We noticed that there were certain archetypes that kept showing up."

Sometimes Setlock came up with a voice, and Mode would write the character. Other times, Mode would come up with a character and ask Setlock if he could do the voice.

"She's responsible for the story," says Setlock, a Cleveland native and Kent State graduate who lives on New York's Upper West Side. "If I would have written it, it would have been just a bunch of goofy phone calls. She did a great job of showing what this guy wants and needs and navigating through this obstacle course of freaks."

*

While the restaurant years provided the comedic grist for "Fully Committed," Mode's theater years helped her move from the small screen to the stage.

"I don't think I would have had the courage to write a play had I not been around so much theater," she says.

"Fully Committed" director Nicholas Martin, now in rehearsals for "Dead End" at the Huntington Theater in Boston, says he really wasn't planning to direct a solo piece. "I'm not into one-person shows," he says.

But he changed his mind after attending a reading.

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