City Paper is not for tourists
In her biting one-act, Fully Committed, playwright Becky Mode sizes up the pampered classes through the eyes of those who serve them.
Moments after the curtain opens on the play Fully Committed, Sam’s got five, six, maybe seven people waiting on the phone. He’s said, “Good morning. Reservations. Can you please hold?” more times that he can count—and the day’s still not five minutes old. One customer announces that she’ll be dining with Philip Johnson this evening. Sam politely tells the woman that his restaurant is “Fully committed.” In fact, there are already 25 more reservations than it can physically accommodate.
“I’m flexible,” the woman responds, and to prove as much, she tells Sam she’d be willing to eat anytime between 7:30 and 8.
Sam consults Jean-Claude, the restaurant’s maitre d’, a coke-sniffing drama queen who informs Sam that the woman in question is a “VVVIP…Her husband invented Saran Wrap or something.” Sam grants the woman her wish.
Sam untucks his shirt. A woman from Louisville also wants a table this evening. “We’re only two little teeny tiny people,” she drawls. But she’s not a VIP, much less an uber one. He takes another call.
“Oh, Sam,” chirps Bryce, owner of the fey voice on the other end of the line. “I didn’t know you were still working there.” This call will not be Bryce’s last before the end of the day. His initial call is to request a table for 15 for Naomi Campbell, who doesn’t eat dairy. He calls back later to specify that everyone in Naomi’s party wants the vegan tasting menu, and he will call yet again to say that Naomi is very particular about lighting. If necessary, Bryce says, he will send over special light bulbs.
The room that passes for Sam’s office is located in the basement of what is perhaps the hottest restaurant in New York, a “global fusion” joint lorded over by a truculent, narcissistic chef whose preferred means of travel is a helicopter. Sam’s official duty is to take reservations; unofficially, it’s to absorb abuse from customers and his superiors. Normally, he would have help in this task, but today, his more senior colleague, Bob, has called in pleading car trouble—a lie to cover for the fact that he’s interviewing for a job at Bed Bath & Beyond.
It’s fair to characterize Sam’s workday as nightmarish. He never speaks to anyone in person, but he has innumerable conversations, few of which are terribly pleasant. The reservationist, of course, is a struggling actor, and throughout the day, everyone from Jean-Claude to his so-called friend to his own brother makes a point of reminding him that real actors don’t need to take jobs answering phones. Around noon, the Zagats show up for lunch, and soon the chef is threatening to cut the balls off of whoever has misplaced their reservation. One would-be customer has a nervous breakdown (“Why are you doing this to me?!”) when Sam informs her that he can’t find her name in the reservation book. Only twice is Sam allowed to leave the shackles of his desk: once to sing a song to a Mafioso and his wife, once to clean up an “accident” in the ladies’ room.
Fully Committed, the wickedly funny one-act play that’s been on a sellout tear since it opened in New York last fall, is the brainchild of Becky Mode, a D.C. native who grew up “somewhere between Woodley Park and Chevy Chase.” Even though the nameless restaurant is no more “real” than its flustered reservations clerk, Committed strikes a chord because the outrageousness Mode has written into the place isn’t necessarily far-fetched.
“It’s a theatrical representation,” explains Mode, herself a retired actress and a former employee of numerous New York dining meccas, including the late, excessively hip Bouley. “[The play] is obviously edited and exaggerated and theatricalized. But I think it conveys the feeling of what it’s like to work in one of those places.”
Committed is a spare, one-actor production. Mark Setlock, who wears a phone headset during most of his stage time, is Sam—in addition to everyone else. There are moments when Setlock’s essentially playing three people at once, such as when Sam is forced to serve as the middleman between a nagging customer and the heinous Jean-Claude, who refuses to take the woman’s call on the grounds that she’s “sooo ugly.” Setlock seamlessly transitions from character to character, even during the rat-a-tat stretches when the punishing call volume threatens to crack Sam’s spirit. And the actor’s comic timing is dead-on: After Sam explains to a bitchy studio exec that he has no reservations available, Setlock pauses a beat to let his face register angry astonishment as the caller, and then barks, “What pretentious crap!”
Mode, a first-time playwright who wrote for Bill Cosby’s television show last season, began tinkering with the idea for Committed three years ago and brought in Setlock to help her develop it from the get-go.
Behind a salad in a West Village cafe that’s a world away from the Upper East Side address of her play’s fictional hot spot, Mode explains that the moment she started working in New York restaurants, she thought to herself, “There’s something in here, some kind of show, a cabaret show, a play—I didn’t know what form it would take, because I’d never written a play before. But it’s such a strange universe, the high-end restaurants here, that I thought it would be great to let people be a fly on the wall.”
The universe that the play spies on is, admittedly, a very New York-centric one. Mode mentions that when a workshop version of Committed was staged upstate, many of its jokes fell flat.
Amy Allworth, a manager at downtown Washington’s DC Coast, says that, although hosts at her restaurant are occasionally offered bribes in exchange for tables (at one point in Committed, Sam is delivered an envelope stuffed with cash), her customers don’t usually resort to scare tactics. Essentially, if you want a table at a fabulous D.C. restaurant on a Saturday night, you don’t need to be Naomi Campbell or the inventor of Saran Wrap. You just need to call a few weeks in advance.
Just about anyone who’s anyone within New York’s food mafia has been to see Committed (after attending the production, super-chef Daniel Boulud even bought Mode and her husband dinner at his acclaimed Daniel), and the city’s press has devoted considerable ink to the furor that the play’s aroused. (Some journalists have hypothesized that Mode intended to send up former boss David Bouley, who recently opened a new restaurant; Mode insists that she did not.)
But the appeal of the play isn’t entirely regional, especially when you consider how many people can claim to have spent at least a part of their lives schlepping food to ungrateful customers. The struggling actor/musician/writer who’s forced to wait tables is an archetype for a reason. It’s arguable that if you took away the restaurant gigs that actors like Sam rely on to make rent, small-audience theaters would wash away with them.
“For Sam, I don’t think it would have been an honest depiction if his job were made to seem like a joyous experience,” says Mode. “Because it’s not really his passion. It’s his job, and those jobs are hard. It’s hard to push yourself to do a job that’s not really what you want to be doing—especially if it’s one of those jobs where you have to eat a lot of shit.”
In a sense, Committed posits that restaurants—or at least certain kinds of restaurants—are as much a part of our celebrity culture as theater and film and politics, and as anyone who’s seen, say, Hurlyburly or The West Wing knows, glamour is a lot less glamorous when you’re stuck backstage. And wherever you find glamour, you’re bound to find some assholes.
“In restaurants,” Mode explains, “there’s a certain breed of very wealthy, very spoiled, very entitled person.” For these people, she says, the hard-to-get reservation “is like the only thing they want that they don’t have. If you have 200 million dollars, you can have everything you want, but maybe on that certain night you can’t get the reservation. So in that sense, it’s literally like watching someone who has everything reduced to their bratty essence.”
Mode repeatedly insists that her play is in no way meant to be a fair and all-encompassing depiction of the restaurant world at large; it’s just a slice of a rarefied universe. The playwright met a lot of nice people during her waitressing years, she says. But when I ask if she misses those days at all, she’s quick to respond, “Not so much.” CP