Thu Nov 8 2007
Photo: Joan Marcus
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
For the first half hour or so of Adam Bock’s brief, extraordinary dark comedy The Receptionist, audiences may wonder what exactly they are watching. At a circular desk in the middle of the stage sits a corporate greeter, Beverly, clucking into the phone like a satisfied hen in her nest. Incarnated with wondrous comic precision by the superb Jayne Houdyshell, Beverly is a bit of a fussbudget: territorial about her pens, smug in her company loyalty, ready to mete out officious advice to her perky, lovelorn coworker Lorraine (Kendra Kassebaum). Observing her inaction for a long time, one is unsure that anything will happen at all. But after much gentle splashing in the shallow end of the steno pool, the play’s bottom suddenly gives way.
Bock’s intense initial focus on the routine goes to the heart of The Receptionist’s pointed, painfully timely allegory about America’s complacency and complicity in the horrors being perpetrated in the name of its own protection; for it becomes increasingly clear that Beverly’s company is engaged in systematized, creepily dispassionate cruelty. (Bock’s combination of naturalistic absurdism and moral dread suggests a cross between Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter.) Joe Mantello’s first-rate production for Manhattan Theatre Club is distinguished by a top-notch cast—which also includes Robert Foxworth as Beverly’s sympathetic boss and Josh Charles as a flirtatious visitor—and a marvelous set by David Korins. By the time this elliptical, provocative play has reached its heartsick finale, Bock has delivered a stinging reproach to our collective capacity to keep basic decency on hold.