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Multiple personalities: Oliver Wadsworth in Fully Committed.

Without Reservations
By James Yeara

Fully Committed
By Becky Mode, directed by Martha Banta

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 22

The stairway to heaven is upstage center. Large-bulbed Christmas lights wrap around the bannister. The stairway leads up, but it doesn’t reach to a top floor; it just ends in the air. Two folding tables meet at right angles center stage, and two bare metal folding chairs and one rolling chair sit before answering machines and phones on the tables. The tables have file folders and clipboards cluttering the space. Rows of metal storage cases line the upstage wall, filled with supplies, and a bright red phone hangs on a beam supporting the stairway. The floor is green-and-maroon tiles—dirty, dingy, and scruffed.

The set definitely creates a sense of “below,” a confined place beneath where everyone wants to be, a place where only someone forced to be at the folding tables would be at the folding tables. In a one-man play that could cheaply be done before a black curtain, Donald Eastman’s set is a good sign that attention is being paid.

Fully Committed is as good as the set. This is the best holiday fare Capital Rep has produced, and the most entertaining presents anyone could receive this season are tickets to see Oliver Wadsworth create the 36 characters that he shares with the audience. Wadsworth doesn’t so much pretend these characters into being as he channels them. His art is beyond an obvious show of physical effort, which would draw more attention to itself and less to the characters. This production is fun, engaging and surprisingly triumphant theater that tiptoes across a trenchant edge: How many people in the audience identify with Sam (the set-upon receptionist for a pretentious Manhattan restaurant) versus how many people in the audience identify—or could be identified—with the pretentious, status-obsessed clientele Sam juggles on the phone?

Fully Committed can be enjoyed simply for Wadsworth’s tour de force characterizations. With a shift in the angle of his head, a squeezing of his soft palate, or twisting of a vertebrae or two, Wadsworth moves from the earnest and likable Sam, a struggling actor in a low-status part-time job, to Mrs. Bunny Vendevere, a wealthy wife whose sense of entitlement is thicker than her mink-stole voice, to the sadistic and vaguely Jack Nicholson-esque chef Jean-Claude, who turns out to be all sauce, no entrée. Wadsworth deftly captures the preening matrons and namedropping “see-me-I’m-here” poseurs.

The shifts and turns and returns of characters are accomplished with a breakneck pace that would suit the serving needs of even the trendiest restaurant on a Saturday night. That Wadsworth creates both the genial, transplanted-Indianan decency of Sam and the giddy smoothness of the Smarmy Man, who buys his way onto the reservation list for an overbooked Saturday night in three slick conversations, give testimony to Wadsworth’s talent and ability.

Fully Committed makes full use of this talent and ability with its story of the underdog making good, which takes this production beyond being just a character festival. Director Martha Banta keeps what through line there is in Fully Committed strong, and the best moments in the production are when Sam talks to his father, whose “okie-doke” shifts ever so slightly as it becomes apparent that the newly widowed father will be alone this Christmas. That Sam earns his triumphs at the play’s end, learning what Curtis, his agent’s secretary, calls “a strong sense of personal entitlement” without being a crass user, and that the “I’ll be home for Christmas” ending doesn’t feel Chicken Soup for the Soul-ish, make Fully Committed a rare holiday treat: satisfyingly tasty without the saccharine.

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