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The Receptionist

fat MTC's Stage I

The business office of the typical American corporation is an intentionally banal place. That is partly because it belongs to no one who spends any time in it, and partly because, notwithstanding the ubiquitous upholstery, it is a kind of factory, where prescribed processes are implemented and specific regulations are followed. The product, although abstract, has a certain dollar value, and like any manufactured product it is important in a way that the individuals who produce it are not.

In The Receptionist, Adam Bock asks us to consider terror and torture as the ultimate office products, more extreme than anything else imaginable, perhaps, but firmly placed on a continuum with quarterly reports, hiring memoranda, and cost-benefit analyses. What if, along with reams of unread paper, the American corporation turned out twisted corpses and "confessions"?

Fifty years ago, the idea would have been explored with more or less "absurd" symbols — absurd because the point of the drama would have been to underline the pointless inhumanity of the horror. It was believed in those more innocent times that social evils would not withstand penetrating criticism of their folly. Now that such blithe hopefulness has curdled, a faith in "absurdity" would seem naive. Absurdity is just something that people not only take but undertake in their stride. Mr Bock wants us to ask whether we have domesticated the old totalitarian virus, and made it paradoxically at home in the consumer's world of individual choice.

Wisely, he does not answer any of these questions. The Receptionist is not, in the end, a very unhappy social diagnosis of American life in the form of a one-act play. It is, rather, and invitation to ask. The MTC's top-flight cast of four, expertly directed by Joe Mantello, ought to assure the playwright that audiences will find it difficult to duck the question during the performance or, more important, thereafter. Could it happen here? What would it look like if it did? Especially as lighted by Brian MacDevitt and scored by Darron L West, The Receptionist suggests that the fearful nightmare would not be altogether implausible.

For most of its duration, The Receptionist is an office comedy that transpires at a very high altitude, where the air is too thin to support a great deal of laughter. The fundamental joke is that not very much happens at the so-called "Northeast Office" of an unnamed organization. Beverly, the receptionist (Jayne Houdyshell) occupies a  pod-like desk near the entryway. The personalizing accoutrements with which she has littered her "area" make a colorful contrast to the racks of open files that surround her in David Korins's otherwise understated and elegant set, but they're essentially of a piece with the cheap furniture on which they're placed. There are the undoubtedly artificial chrysanthemums, the small rag doll perched on the computer monitor, the "special" pens that office-mates are fond of stealing. A galaxy of bright Post-It notes stands ready to remind Beverly (costumed with equally primary éclat by Jane Greenwood) of countless minor details. The ephemerality of this environment is highlighted by talk of the expensive teacups that Beverly and her husband collect at eBay — even when they can't really afford them. When asked if she collects coffee cups, Beverly draws an uncomprehending blank: you don't collect coffee mugs, you drink out of them. Her teacups are just for show. Teacups.

Endowed with Ms Houdyshell's formidable girth, Beverly holds the reception desk with the tenacity of an occupying army. Although diligent about answering the telephone, she is somewhat cavalier about the rest of her time, gossiping on the phone and otherwise taking care of "personal business." So comfortable is she with her modus laborandi that she discusses it frankly with Mr Dart (Josh Charles), a man from the Central Office who drops in, unexpected, to see her boss, Mr Raymond (Robert Foxworth). Her criticism of the uncomfortable chair and ugly carpeting extend to lengths that some might consider imprudent, bearing in mind her ignorance of Mr Dart's position with the firm. Beverly displays the comfortable American's expectation that everybody in the world will be sympathetically interested in her affairs. The possibility that the man from the Central Office might judge it unnecessary to keep an employee with so little to do never crosses her mind.

Silly as she might seem to be on her own, Beverly is a tower of sense whenever Lorraine (Kendra Kassebaum) steals up to her desk for a chat. Lorraine is "in love with a narcissist," and the two women entertain themselves with observations about love and men until Mr Dart shows up, whereupon Lorraine takes up an overt campaign of flirtation that Mr Dart playfully reciprocates. What a jolly time these workers have! We find ourselves wondering what has detained Mr Raymond, whose lateness neither Beverly nor Lorraine can account for.

We have seen Mr Raymond at the start of the play, standing alongside a camera mounted on a tripod. Clearly a propos of nothing, he regales an unseen interlocutor with the pleasures of fly-fishing. We have no idea what this bit of dialogue prefaces until later, when Mr Raymond, disquieted, tells Beverly and Lorraine that a mistake must have been made about the client that he saw yesterday afternoon. Mr Raymond looked into his eyes and could tell that a mistake had been made, that the client didn't know anything — especially after breaking one of the client's fingers "didn't work."

The very instant that Mr Raymond mentions that broken finger, we know what the Central Office and the Northeast Office are set up to do. As awful as it is, we know. Mr Bock never spells it out. He doesn't have to. Mr Dart is unhappy with Mr Raymond, and Mr Raymond with Mr Dart; after voices are raised offstage, Mr Dart commands Mr Dart to follow him to the Central Office. When, after a brief blackout, we find the women wondering why Mrs Raymond has called the office so many overnight, asking where her husband might be, we prepare for worse, and it is not long in coming. With commendable modesty, Mr Bock refrains from dramatizing the nightmare with which we are all too familiar. His point has simply been to suggest a new and peculiarly American way of winding up in it. (December 2007)

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