There is a sense of deja vu in Adam Bock’s suspenseful one act The Receptionist premiering under Joe Mantello’s skillful direction for the Manhattan Theater Club. Last year Mr. Bock gave us the critically praised The Thugs, which debuted downtown and like that previous effort his new play takes place in an office where small talk seems the order of the day, but beneath the glib chatter some sinister plot is unfolding. Both plays share the same clever gimmick, a normal everyday façade eventually reveals some horrible truth. The brisk 70 minute tale is an outstanding production with a pitch perfect performance by Jayne Houdyshell as Beverly the title character at the center of the story and a set by David Korins that becomes on ominous fifth character. But nonetheless this entertaining Receptionist feels incomplete awaiting a second act.
The story begins with obtuse references from a man fishing, as he elaborates on how he decides whether to set a fish free or kill it depending on how the fish has been hooked. He ultimately describes cutting open a fish, gutting it for cooking. A woman will dash across the stage, but we are clueless except maybe in retrospect. These are some of the odd details that accumulate at the beginning of The Receptionist as we are ushered into the everyday atmosphere of Beverly’s world where she reigns supreme from her circular desk unit at the center of a vast office.
Ms. Houdyshell as Beverly plunges us into the mundane routines of the receptionist’s world, where she is constantly on the move, wheeling around on her swivel chair, straightening up, sorting this, cleaning that, dusting her computer, hording her pens with guarded finesse or delicately devouring a beloved pastry. She is an expert actress living the part with an authenticity that is compelling and as a result we feel more frightened by the ending.
The actress embodies Beverly with a warm self confident pride and gossipy yet efficient side as she answers the phones with panache demonstrating she’s one smart cookie, deftly juggling the lines, shifting personality and tone with each new caller. In Ms Houdyshell’s hands Beverly is charmingly engrossing as she mothers a love sick co-worker, Lorraine (Kendra Kassebaum), who Beverly decides needs “Help, I’m In Love with a Narcissist,” a self help book she recently read or orders with detailed precision a birthday cake for her boss Mr. Raymond (Robert Foxworth), who on this particular morning is surprisingly late. A mysterious man, Mr. Dart (Josh Charles), will arrive looking for Mr. Raymond and piquing our curiosity about what’s really going on.
Mantello builds the suspense nicely and his actors are uniformly excellent, even if Ms Kassebaum as Lorraine is unnecessarily maudlin at the beginning. She recovers beautifully adding to the building tension and Beverly’s fussy detachment from the unfolding events gives weight to the eerie mood.
The evening is smartly staged and Mr. Korins’ haunting office setting has endless shelves of illuminated files that draw our attention like another character provoking additional questions and thoughts. Then at the conclusion the setting suddenly shifts with a flourish and an assist from Brian MacDevitt’s wonderful lighting that indicates something ominous may have happened.
Bock weaves a compelling spell displaying a good ear for dialogue, and everyday language where throwaway lines give additional insight. Just at the moment you begin to think, “What the hell is going on here” and begin to seriously question things, the play is over. We are left to draw our own conclusions while thinking we’ve been there and done that, but that was The Thugs.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
The Receptionist opened on October 30, 2007 at Manhattan Theater Club, 131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, for a limited engagement through December 23. Tickets are available by calling 212-581-1212.