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Talented actor Scott Wichmann pulls off the Barksdale's hilarious one man show with ease and attitude.

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Barksdale Theatre's production of "Fully Committed" is set in the basement office of a trendy Manhattan restaurant during the Christmas season. A telephone rings as the play opens. Sam, played by Scott Wichmann, is an overworked reservations clerk on duty alone. He answers, "Good morning, reservations, could you hold please?"

A split second later, Wichmann becomes Mrs. Vandevere, a snooty Park Avenue type who finally succeeds in reserving a table after Sam verifies her VIP status. Oscar, the business manager (also played by Wichmann), tells him, "Her husband makes a lot of money. I think he invented Saran Wrap."

In a whirl of activity, Sam also fields calls from Naomi Campbell's effeminate personal assistant, a clueless Japanese tourist, the narcissistic owner/chef of the restaurant, the flamboyant French maitre d', a mysterious mobster, and Sam's own father. Wichmann creates these characters from a dizzying palette of voices, expressions and changes in body language.

One might doubt that a single actor can credibly play several dozen characters and still convey a story. In the wrong hands, this material could dissolve into a tangle of self-indulgent tedium. But that's not the case here. Once the magic takes hold, we're immersed in a world saturated with both attitude and humor.

During the first few minutes, it's possible to look around at the audience and notice a few stragglers who are not quite experiencing this world. They smile self-consciously at the jokes and appear bewildered by the riotous laughter going on around them. But sooner or later, Wichmann will transform himself into yet another rowdy character (say, Hector, a line cook from the Dominican Republic) that hooks them for the rest of the show.

How do Wichmann and director Steve Perigard create such rounded characters with so few brush strokes? Talent is the most important factor, of course. The frenetic pace would humble almost any other performer. Because of the large number of phone calls and intercom buzzes, just keeping the sound cues straight is an impressive piece of work.

Sure, a few of these characters depend on stereotypes, but that's part of the fun. Anyone who interacts with the public in their work will recognize many of the headaches Sam must endure. Playwright Becky Mode worked as a waitress before writing this play, and there's little doubt that much of the dialogue flows from the real life frustrations that one can experience in such a job.

The play maintains its momentum because each character wants something and is determined to get it. Most want a dinner reservation by whatever means possible. Sam's co-workers want to survive their shift in one piece. Chef wants the global positioning unit for his Ferrari. As for Sam, he's in a dead-end job, he can't pay the phone bill, and his acting career is stalled. He wants to scratch his way out of the basement.

The set takes good advantage of this season's changes to the Barksdale stage. Because the audience now surrounds the stage on three sides instead of four, the designers were able to use the fourth side to create a detailed representation of a basement wall and stairway. The claustrophobia that envelops Sam's life is more intense than might have been possible on a fully open arena stage.

The Barksdale retains the sense of intimacy that encourages theatergoers to believe they are magically experiencing a different place and time. Wichmann's incredible performance convinces the audience that they are seeing and hearing several dozen absurdly funny people onstage. Sometimes one wonders if it's the audience that should be "fully committed."

"Fully Committed" will be at the Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, through Dec. 30. Tickets are $24; call 282-2620 for information.

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