No question, waiters, waitresses and maitre d's take a lot of guff from puffed up, irate or generally disagreeable customers. But it took Fully Committed, the hit Off-Broadway comedy by Becky Mode, to let everyone know that even restaurant reservation operators can be on the receiving end of a parade of eccentric, curt or desperate entreaties.
Mode's education came by way of her friend, Mark Setlock, a struggling actor who took a reservations job at Bouley's restaurant in Manhattan. The young thespian would sit in the restaurant basement and field phone calls from diners who simply had to get a table in the hottest eatery in town. Setlock's release valve for all the pressure was entertaining friends with the accents, dialects and demands of these callers. Eventually Mode saw a play in all these stories, and in September 1999, Fully Committed opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce Street. Rave reviews greeted the solo, which has Setlock doing more than thirty characters -- based on, but not directly mimicking, real-life encounters.
We wanted some more dish on the real story of Setlock's restaurant years, so Playbill On-Line contacted him on a sunny Thursday afternoon, just as the 31-year-old actor had returned from walking his dog.
Playbill On-Line: So the play is, `any resemblance to people living or dead is strictly coincidental...'?
Mark Setlock: The people in the play are made up. It's based on a real job I had at Bouley's, but the characters are archetypes of recurrent callers we had at the restaurant."
PBOL: Were they the worst?
MS: We dealt with a high volume of callers, and usually the regulars weren't that difficult. They were treated as regulars; they called in advance and knew what they were doing. The really difficult people were bridge and tunnel people who opened up their Zagat guide and just wanted to go for the status symbol and having a notch on their belt.
The job could be hellish, because the restaurant was highly rated and received four stars in the New York Times. As such, the volume of calls was incredible. The phones never stopped ringing. Most of the time our answer to people was `no.' We tried to get through a lot of calls quickly. And people were always trying to say, `well, what about this date? Or this date?'. But we were MONTHS in advance, not just weeks. And these were people not used to hearing the word `no.' We're dealing with a lot of money here -- dinner could run a couple of hundred bucks per person. These people were heavy hitters; well established or from old money. They don't like to hear the word `no' -- and that was our most commonly-used word! The phrase `I'm afraid not' was never in my vocabulary before I started working there. Then it became the phrase I said over and over again." PBOL: Jeez, if they were full months in advance, why couldn't they just pre-book more months in advance? Broadway shows do it all the time.
MS: We had reservation books, but they were open only for two months into the future. In other words, on the first of March, that was the day we opened the book for May. And that day would be a living hell, because everyone would call on that day. But even then, all the good tables were booked during the first hour."
PBOL: Was that the worst job you ever had?
MS: I hated all the jobs I'd ever had, except my acting jobs. I was a bartender, I worked at the GAP, which was worse than Bouley's because it was more tedious for less pay. [Setlock told NY Times writer Jesse McKinley, "You would live in fear that the manager would say, `Mark, go work on the pant wall. It was enormous.'"] At Bouley's at least, the days flew by because they were busy. There's a certain threshold of abuse you can take. When people deal with someone on the phone, they tend to deal with them as if they're not human. Even though I held `the power,' people talked in that way to me. The money was good, but It wears at you. Two years of answering phones chips away at your psyche when you want to be doing something else.
PBOL: Why weren't you doing something else?
MS: Because the only thing I hated worse than those kinds of jobs was looking for another job... Also, at Bouley, I still acted in plays at night. I did four plays for Off-Off-Broadway's Target Margin company with David Herskovits, including The Nutcracker and India Song. I did lots of readings at New York Theatre Workshop, as well as Arden Party's The Emperor of the Moon.
I left Bouley's twice in the two years I worked there. Once for three weeks in 1994, to do the workshop of Rent. Then I left to do David Ives' Don Juan in Chicago at Primary Stages. Then I went back to Bouley's.
PBOL: People obviously associate you with Fully Committed, since you're the star and it's loosely based on your life. But why didn't you end up writing the actual play?
MS: I'm not a writer. It wasn't my idea to do a play; it was Becky's. When Rent exploded and was about to move to Broadway and was everywhere, I was upset because I wasn't part of it. Meanwhile, Becky had been talking about writing a piece about restaurants for years. She'd never written a play, but she thought behind the scenes would be interesting. I'd been talking about doing a one-man play for awhile, so she said, `let me write you a play.' I helped create some of the characters, but she wrote it. She shaped it as a dramatic piece, rather than as a series of funny phone calls, which is what it would have been had I put it together.
PBOL: Although you didn't hop from the workshop to the Nederlander Theatre, Rent did end up playing a part in your career...?
MS: Well, from the workshop they kept Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp and Gilles Chiasson for Broadway company. I'd been playing Angel the drag queen, but I knew they really wanted an Hispanic for the role and just couldn't find one for the workshop. Once the show was on Broadway, I contacted them again and got an understudy job. I did that for a year, then took an ensemble role. All that time, I was working on Fully Committed with Becky. I left Rent at the end of July 1999 to open Fully Committed in September.
PBOL: If Rent hadn't come through, would that have signaled the end for you as an actor?
MS: I'd considering quitting right before Rent happened. I'd been in New York for five years, and nothing much was happening. I started asking friends I trusted to tell me straight, `is it time to give up?' They said, `I can't answer that for you. It's up to you whether you want to weather the storm.' To be honest, I still don't know what I'd do if I weren't acting.
PBOL: When did the acting bug hit you so strongly?
MS: I enjoy performing much more than I do watching theatre. I don't even remember the first show I ever saw. It might have been "The Nutcracker" when I was ten. That's certainly the first time I remember going to the theatre and seeing a show. Then in high school I came to New York with a theatre group and we saw Amadeus, The Rink and Noises Off. But it didn't make any big impression on me. On the other hand, in high school I did a production of Arsenic and Old Lace and that did it.
Also, my mom was always pushing me in that direction. She had the feeling I was going to be a performer, because I was always taping myself telling stories and making people play-act with me. She made me take some dance classes when I was a kid. When I did Arsenic, it was on a whim. I didn't have the fever to be in a play, but once I was in it, it was that rush of `wow, this is what I should do. I'm actually good at something!' And then I couldn't stop.
PBOL: And you're now in a position where it probably won't be stopping for a long time...?
I'm contracted through December and scheduled to stay with the show in New York through September. I can't do any other theatre or film stuff, but I could do, say, a TV series. I've been auditioning for a lot of TV stuff and commercials, but hey, I didn't even have an agent before this...
In a way, I feel like I've just graduated from school. It took this show to give me a little confidence going into these meetings and going up for things.
PBOL: And the dream role that you hope lies ahead?
MS: There's no particular role I'm desperate to play, though I love certain playwrights. Tennessee Williams, for example. I'd enjoy playing anything outside myself. Anything that's different. Oh, and I have a dream to meet and work with Meryl Streep.
PBOL: Hmm. If you can get her a good table at Danube, who knows?
-- By David Lefkowitz