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Actor Mark Setlock isn't really an employee of a high-falutin' New York City restaurant, he just plays one onstage. He plays that, plus about 30 of the most high-ego, low-I.Q. morons you'd never want to deal with, in his astoundingly successful one-man show Fully Committed.

Setlock darts back and forth between playing the at-ease Sam, a hapless, out-of-work actor answering phones in the basement of a chic French restaurant featuring "global fusion" fare, and a nightmarish litany of hungry New Yorkers. An assistant to Naomi Campbell requests everything from a change of menu to more subtle light bulbs. There's a Jewish American Princess whose reservations seemed to have been misplaced. A relentless professional offers beaucoup bucks for a table. If that weren't task enough, Setlock portrays the coke-nosed egomaniac owner, the whiney and insecure chef, and the seemingly incompetent maitre d'.

So who can relate to this?

"Anyone who's ever worked a job answering phones," said Setlock, 32. How about anyone who has ever worked? Setlock created Fully Committed with a friend from acting school, Becky Mode. Much of the show's content is lifted from his days at NYC's top-rated Bouley. Mode turned Setlock's recollections into the play Fully Committed—the title is the polite term Sam must relay to diners when the restaurant is void of reservations on a particular night. (French owner's orders!)

If this theatre of the absurd sounds entertaining—or hits home with other restaurant workers—the good news is that Fully Committed and Setlock are in Los Angeles, starting this week, at the Coronet Theatre. It is the first time he has performed the show outside of lower Manhattan. (A recent run in the Bay Area featured Ethan Sandler in the role.) It arrives in the Southland a well-oiled machine, loaded with glowing reviews and a finely-tuned star who has been performing this maelstrom eight times a week for more than one year.

"I don't have many hobbies except Fully Committed," Setlock said in an interview from his NYC apartment. Not too long before the show, he was much like the character he portrays: a Midwestern transplant trying to make it as an actor in the Big Apple. Setlock, an Ohioan, had a small part in Rent before focusing on his one-man show full-time. The three years of Rent work (and pay) allowed him to concentrate on making Fully Committed come to fruition without the hassles of a day job.

Before those days, he recalled, "I was doing a lot of showcases for free. I did a couple of plays for money and regional work. It's tough unless you make a big noise. It's as tough as they say. There's a lot of good actors out there and no one sees them; I know people who have been here eight years and still haven't made it."

To supplement income, Setlock held a bevy of day jobs, the Gap being one of the most salient. But for him, as for many actors, the sign of success is not stardom but just being able to give up the day job routine for good.

"I just want to keep working and not have a day job. I'd just really like to act," he said.

Food for Thought

It took Setlock, writer Mode, and director Nicholas Martin about two and one half years to land a theatre in the hypercrowded NYC theatre market (talk about "fully committed"). Setlock says theater administrators were often interested in the show conceptually but didn't want to risk leasing precious stage space to an unproven commodity. After a workshop production of the show to which theatre administrators were invited, the not-for-profit Vineyard theatre bit at it.

The show's very first review was none other than the genteel New York Times.

"I read it online at 1 a.m.," recalled Setlock. "I was scared—even if you think the show is good, they command what happens with the future of the show." He admitted that he didn't read the article in traditional fashion; instead, he scrolled the story first, looking for adjectives. "I didn't want to come across something like 'untalented' or 'ugly.' "

Not only did the Times' theatre critic rave about the production, the paper's food critic later wrote a lengthy article about how well Fully Committed skewers the haute N.Y. restaurant landscape. After raves in the major New York papers, even Entertainment Weekly and London's Independent, the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village came calling. This was, Setlock noted, "a step up because the Cherry Lane only does commercial runs. When something's there, it's because it's a hit."

L.A. is the only other city where Setlock wants to perform the show. His next step is television and film; indeed, he wouldn't mind taking the Fully Committed concept to sitcom level. New York friends who are familiar with L.A. have been trying to prep him for a town in which modesty is not the best policy.

"They tell me about having to look great all the time, and I'm kind of a pig," he confessed. "I'm not a fashion person—very unkempt."

If he seems sincerely humble, though, he is, after all, an actor. He does not shy from the spotlight. Indeed, he said, "The whole reason to do a one-man show is to focus on yourself. I'd be silly not to do it." The show certainly showcases his assets: his mimicry of sounds and mannerisms, and changing of characters at lightning speed.

Not that his New York audience has been void of movers and shakers. A recent witness, in fact, was director Quentin Tarantino, who talked with Setlock about the actor's characters following the show. "He was like an excited little kid; he was very sweet and that was pretty cool," said Setlock.

But his quintessential go-gaga-over audience member has eluded him thus far: his idol, Meryl Streep. "In each role she's herself yet another person—she's able to kind of just blend into the story," Setlock said.

Better Stuff

But even after all the glowing reviews and exceptional word-of-mouth, Setlock faces challenges to get industry people into the seats—a trend he noticed in New York and worries about in L.A., the industry capital.

"[Industry people] have better stuff to do," he conceded. "They're not going to see a guy named Mark Setlock unless someone else tells them it's good." That doesn't necessarily include critics.

But worries aside, when he spoke to Back Stage West, Setlock was eagerly prepping for his journey West. He has a place lined up near the Beverly Center theatre and a car waiting for him—a slightly terrifying prospect for a longtime NYC cab-and-subway traveler.

And if for some reason the sitcom deal doesn't materialize?

"I could be back at the Gap next year," he said with a laugh. BSW

"Fully Committed," Sept. 15-Nov. 19 at the Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 657-7377. www.fullycommitted.com.

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