A Table? We’re Sorry, Sir, No Losers Allowed

Fully Committed , the backstage restaurant show beloved by restaurant critics and celebrity chefs, is going strong at the little Cherry Lane Theater downtown. I caught it before swooning over a supper of meltingly triumphant Kavalierspitz with zesty puréed spinach, followed by a Czech palacsintak to die for, at David Bouley’s swirling tribute to fin de siècle Vienna, Danube.

I couldn’t have been happier to fork out the $28,622.14 for two (service not included). Having just seen Fully Committed , I could appreciate even more than usual what William Grimes describes as “the intricate theater of the dining experience.”

And Mr. Grimes should know. “I found Fully Committed immensely entertaining,” he wrote in The New York Times ‘ Critic’s Notebook column, “a richly comic affirmation of everything I’ve ever heard, or suspected, about the bad behavior that good food can inspire.”

So the show, which could be rechristened Humiliation , is authentic. It’s about the pathetic lengths people will go to in order to get a reservation at a top Manhattan restaurant. I’m kidding about my visit after the show to Danube, of course. I couldn’t get in. Or as the near demented man attached to an earphone puts it sweetly in the show: “Unfortunately, we’re fully committed.”

“You’re full of what ?” comes the reply.

The phrase “fully committed” is suavely Orwellian restaurant-speak for “fully booked” or “get lost.” The whole point of the exercise is that nobody can get in, except possibly next Feb. 23 at 4:30 P.M., provided you confirm your booking six times one week before. Even then, you can’t be sure. The status of the four-star restaurant evokes the terror of the velvet rope outside empty nightclubs. The rope says: “Go Away.” Somebody does get in, depending on definitions of “somebody.” But do you really want to be Harvey Weinstein?

This is one of the esthetic areas I find myself gently disagreeing with Mr. Grimes: Restaurants are not theaters. Theaters beg you to come in. They prostrate themselves before anyone , rich and poor alike, and say: “Have a twofer.” All are welcome at the theater.

True, as Mr. Grimes points out: “Restaurants have set designers and lighting designers. There is a script (the menu), and a playwright (the chef). There are reviews …” But the similarities cut deep, I think, at only one level: A show that’s cooking well is newly created every night. There’s a script, there’s a menu, there’s hysteria, monumental egos, lightning improvisations, a beginning, middle and end. Every performance in theater, like restaurants, is a new beginning, a fresh start in a well-lighted room.

But what use is that to those of us who are on the Sugar Busters diet? Fully Committed is a one-man show, but let’s not hold that against it, either. Monologues, the poor man’s plays, can be a low-budget substitute for a banquet, but Mark Setlock as Sam plays more than 30 other characters during the intermissionless evening and he plays them well. Sam is the unemployed actor on the telephones in the basement of the unnamed exclusive restaurant. It goes without saying that Mr. Setlock has sometimes been an unemployed actor, too. In fact, he manned the phones at Bouley in TriBeCa for a while (Bouley of David Bouley, no less). The show’s authenticity and satirical edge is completed by its author, the first-time dramatist Becky Mode, who’s a former actress, and therefore a sometime waitress and coat-check girl.

May they never work in a restaurant again. Fully Committed creates a vindictive, hellish image of its backstage restaurant life, and a pretty craven, mean-spirited one of the desperate customers and social climbers trying to get in. Sam seems nice and hapless, and two or three of his unending calls are even from people we might describe as quaintly human.

“My husband and I are coming to New York the weekend of January the 13th,” goes the call from the chatty Southern lady, “and we’re just dyin’ to come eat with y’all!” Then there’s the old girl calling to complain about the lack of a senior citizen’s discount and the lousy meal she had, or the bored, rejected voice on the line that says laconically: “I’ve been holding so long I’ve forgotten who I’ve called.”

But the tone of the show, I’m afraid, isn’t found in affectionate ribbing or a lighthearted “slice of life,” but in its surprising nastiness of spirit. The maître d’ is a pretentious, self-hating cokehead, a Uriah Heep bending low before celebs, major and minor, and I think I’ve met him before. But the diabolic chef isn’t the “character,” or wild and crazy genius, we’re meant to believe he is. He’s a sadist, cruelly abusing and bullying poor Sam so much that we wonder why on earth he takes it. “Move on, Sam!” we think, almost begging him to quit. “Don’t be a loser .”

Humiliation is the name of this restaurant’s game. The tormented customers go one better. They humiliate themselves. Their collective name is “Gimme.” It’s amusing to hear Naomi Campbell’s ferocious assistant demanding an all-vegan menu for 15, then calling again with: “We want to know how close Table 17 is to the lighting sconce.” (The whims of celeb models, like celeb chefs, must be catered to at all costs.) Little wonder Mr. Setlock’s Sam takes a breath from the mayhem and looks at us, silently thinking: “Humanity is nuts.”

Alas, what we really see is a form of humanity made greedily unpleasant in hot pursuit of black truffle and squab wrapped in chard set on a mousseline of potatoes dipped in gold dust. They beg and bribe; they scream, they plead. “Gimme!” Their venal presumption and tantrums finally exhaust.

They exhausted me. Why, then, did the audience find Fully Committed so hilarious? If they recognize themselves, they shouldn’t. The audience can’t all be restaurateurs. They look too normal. There’s a touch of Schadenfreude , perhaps. For some people enjoy seeing a Henry Kravis fail at the little things in life, like not getting the right table. But there are no little insults in trendy restaurants, only gigantic ones. Why, even the Zagats can be kept waiting, and status waits for no man.

Fully Committed is a democracy of exclusiveness in action. It is saying we’re all treated like dreck! And it’s comforting that way. Mr. and Mrs. Everyman are no different from the wealthy socialite who can’t get a table, the zillionaire seated by the toilets, or the V.I.P. kept rudely waiting, mon Dieu! We are all rejected celebrities now!

Still , Fully Committed ends happily ever after, which is the equivalent of it producing a caramelized banana tarte à la mode in a charming raspberry coulis. Sam the telephone man gets an audition at Lincoln Center, and it turns out that its executive producer, Bernard Gersten, is coming to the restaurant as the guest of some old rich hag who usually can’t get in. Mr. Gersten has even asked to meet Sam personally before the audition. Well, I’m shocked. Shocked! I didn’t know Bernie Gersten is a foodie. I know it’s only fiction, but I hope Sam got the role.