Like many actors, Becky Mode supported herself for years by working in restaurants--waiting on tables, checking coats, taking reservations. While handling phones at the old Bouley, a trendy restaurant in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, Mode and her fellow reservations-taker, actor Mark Setlock, found themselves coping with one ludicrous situation after another. At the end of the day they would entertain each other with can-you-believe-it stories about such people as a chef on the verge of going nuts and royalty who wanted their own bathroom.
"Then came the epiphany," says Mode. "We had the germ of a play."
Both Mode and Setlock, who had studied acting at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, enjoyed improv, so they began "writing" by acting out invented characters. "We knew we wanted a society type from the Upper East Side," says Mode, "and we wanted to look at that New York paradigm: 'If there's not enough, I want it' "--getting a table at an "in" restaurant, for example, or a ticket to a sold-out show.
Little did the celebrities and wannabes they dealt with on the telephone know that on the other end of the line Mode and Setlock were hoarding ingredients for dishing the dirt.
The one-person play they wrote, Fully Committed, opened at New York's nonprofit Vineyard Theatre in September 1999. By December, a producer moved it to Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village, where it plays to packed houses nightly. Readers of the New York Times have seen ads in which Joan Rivers or one of five other celebrities is shown ranting about not being able to get a seat at the show--and the text is written as if it were an entry in the Zagat restaurant guide.
The initial reviews from New York's drama critics were favorable, but when food critic William Grimes wrote about Fully Committed in the Times food section, phones in the box office rang off the hook. "Food in New York," says Mode, "is huge."
Productions of fully committed have run in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. It opens here, with Ethan Sandler playing all 36 characters, at Ford's Theatre on January 25 for a four-week run. This will be a homecoming for Mode, 36, who grew up in DC's Forest Hills neighborhood. Her father, P.J. Mode, is a partner with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering; her mother, Elaine, is a photographer.
After graduating from Georgetown Day School in 1982 and Wesleyan College in 1986, Mode spent a year working in theater in Chicago but found the city too cold and "too far from the East Coast." So she moved to New York, where, in addition to restaurant work, she found assignments writing for and about children at HBO and Nickelodeon television.
Based on the script for Fully Committed, Mode was recruited to write for TV's Cosby show: "They wanted a writer from theater. People in TV look to theater for writers." She's also updated the Goldie Hawn/Walter Matthau movie Cactus Flower; that screenplay is currently "sitting in development" at Columbia.
Now Mode is working on a pilot for a comedy on parenting for Studios USA at ABC-TV. "It's in the outline stage," she says. "First there's the outline, then the script, then the show runner's notes, then the studio's notes, then the network's notes. Then, when you have everyone's notes, they choose which to go with."
The location Mode has in mind for her pilot is Brooklyn, where she lives in a fourth-floor walkup with her husband, Chris Erikson, a guitarist and journalist, and their young son, Leo.
"There are shows about parenting," she says, "but few that look into the working mother's angle, that dilemma, with a sense of humor."
Stay-at-home dads are not a rarity in her neighborhood, and fewer than half the members of her mothers group work full-time. Having a humor writer in their midst is inhibiting to some, because everything said and done is fair game. "Just make me look thin," one new mother pleaded.
Given her writing success, Mode has no plans to return to restaurant work. "Oh, sure, I'd put on an apron and whip out my bottle opener if I had to," she says, but that seems unlikely. With parenting and writing, she's fully committed.