If I tell you I’ve seen a newish play that involves reams of numbing everyday chatter, a flirtatious young woman and a woebegone man in a pleasantly ordinary setting, a nattering motherly type who runs the joint, and a good-looking fellow bent on disrupting lives that only seem ordinary—would the name Harold Pinter come to mind? Perhaps the title The Birthday Party?
Instead, meet The Receptionist, a 2007-vintage cautionary tale from Adam Bock, the eccentric and inventive writer who’s given us everything from a queer interspecies love story involving a shark and a commitment-phobe (Swimming In the Shallows) to a play about a budding environmental activist whose cast includes a live pig.
So you know she’ll turn out to be an intriguing thing, this mercurial little one-acter the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage has just put up. But before you go drifting over to the water cooler to get better acquainted, one more question: If I were to tell you that the title character throws an actual birthday bash onstage—an abortive one, given what’s happened to the guest of honor, but still—would you chuckle appreciatively, or roll your eyes?
Your answer may depend on your appreciation for theater’s finer details. The attention, for instance, that Bock lavishes on the rhythms and the frictions, the intimacies and the awkwardnesses, and the petty politics of life in a small office. (Where, it is perfectly apparent, he has spent a not-insignificant quantity of time.)
Take our heroine—Beverly is her name and, as embodied by Nancy Paris, she occupies her receptionist’s station like it’s the bridge of an ocean liner, juggling phone calls like a hibachi chef tosses his shrimp tails, documenting the days on her sprawling desk calendar and always, always keeping a suspicious eye on the pens arranged so tidily in that standard-issue black-plastic carousel. (Cheapie ballpoints for pen-borrowers; smooth, sensual rollerballs of which Beverly is understandably jealous.) She’s one of those indispensable admin types who are to workplaces what a good homemaker is to a good home, and one gratifying thing about Bock’s portrait is that it’s always aware of her singular position: essential but ultimately subordinate to the staffers whose calls she takes, whose supplies she orders, whose bagels she fetches, and whose relationships she cheerfully counsels.
It’s these acutely observed details—the chatter about good pastries and bad boyfriends, the chipper, awkward talk of coffee and coats and children with a visitor (Adam Jonas Segaller) who arrives unexpectedly, asking for an executive who’s not in—that make The Receptionist seem initially like just another workplace comedy, and a sharp one too.
But you’ll recall, perhaps, that mention of looming menace? It’s there from the start, in the moody atmospherics provided by Andrew F. Griffin’s grim, fluorescent-dominated lighting design, in the subtle, Muzak-y sound scheme of Elisheba Ittoop, and in the oddly assertive company logo that dominates Hannah Crowell’s otherwise anonymous corporate set: a few stripes, a star that’s a little bolder than usual, vertical hashmarks that look a lot like two towers.
Ah, there we go: The thing that’s been detaining Beverly’s absent boss (John Brennan) turns out to be an ordinary bit of company business gone suddenly wrong. Brennan’s Mr. Raymond has begun to doubt the standard operating procedures, and Segaller’s Mr. Dart is here to ask why, and in a few deftly bland phrases Bock has created a world where ordinary bits of business involve techniques that have recently been euphemized as “enhanced interrogation” in our own world—techniques that, to our lasting shame, had threatened to become as standard in our operating procedures as in Mr. Raymond’s.
It’s easy to hear Bock’s distress, once the sinister undercurrents have surfaced in The Receptionist, about living in a world where authorities argue that dangers abroad necessitate evils at home, where, as Beverly gets around to saying, “Terrible things can happen when you’re too trusting.”
What’s less discernible is a bigger point, an argument about how Beverly and her officemates have gotten there, and how they might get back. And while what goes unsaid, unclarified, unknown is a large part of what makes Pinter’s The Birthday Party so unsettling, the uncertainties in the little universe of Bock’s Receptionist turn out to carry precious little menace. It’s the known evils that matter here, and once they’re uncovered, there’s little to do but wait for Beverly to lock up and turn out the lights.