Thursday, August 20, 2009

review - The Receptionist

The Receptionist
written by Adam Bock
directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Odyssey Theatre
through September 20 - extended through November 21, Saturdays only @ 5pm and 8pm

Those who like plays to have a clearly drawn perspective and a definitive ending will not take to The Receptionist. From the opening monologue, delivered to an unknown party, Mr. Raymond (Jeff Perry) shows his contempt for torture. When he catches a fish, for example, rather than watch it die, he prefers setting it free; if the gills are damaged, however, he will put it out of its misery inflicting as little pain as possible. The next scene takes place in an office with a receptionist, Beverly Wilkins (Megan Mullally) going about her daily routine of answering the phones, talking, and straightening out her desk and the lives of everyone around her. There seems to be no connection between the 2 scenes, except that Raymond works in the office. This unpredictability becomes a staple in The Receptionist, and you either like it or you don't. I happen to like it, and here's why.
First of all, routine in an office is dull; it's the people who make the atmosphere tolerable, and in some cases even pleasant. Beverly is a New York yenta, with a husband who would rather buy a teacup (he has a collection of them) than pay the phone bill and a needy adult daughter who relies on her parents for constant nurturing and support. Beverly relishes doling out advice about men and dating to her girl friends over the phone between business calls and to co-workers like Lorraine (Jennifer Finnegan), who would rather flirt than work. Routine, routine, routine. Beverly orders a birthday cake for her boss, serves up coffee, picks up the mail and sorts it, greets clients: Beverly is a Jack of all trades in this office as most receptionists are. Everyone has come to rely on her. She's a rock. Mullally is so adept at creating a character in depth - meticulous to a fault with every detail and so much fun to watch. She knows how to get a laugh by simply arranging the pens in a cup. And she has plenty of heart! Finnegan plays Lorraine with exuberance and a breath of fresh air, and the two co-workers, though like day and night, get on favorably.
A break in routine. In walks Martin Dart (Chris L. McKenna), a tall and handsome executive from the main office, wanting to speak with Mr. Raymond. It is important to note here that we, the audience, never find out what business these people are in. Are they insurance brokers, product manufacturers, or something far more devious and unspeakable? When Beverly explains that Mr. Raymond is not in his office, Dart prefers to wait and he does. Wouldn't he have made an appointment? Or if he did, is Raymond avoiding Dart's visit? We never actually find out what Raymond did except that he stopped following protocol, for after he does appear, he and Dart argue in the office behind the front desk and Raymond is ordered to leave, to head out to the main office with Dart - for punishment? - to the dismay and preoccupation of Beverly and Lorraine.
Getting back to basics. Two things make this mysterious play a must see. There is an underlying suspense that builds, little by little. And... it has a delectably dark sense of humor. We laugh when Dart and Lorraine begin flirting innocently - or is it? - with each other, but underneath we feel her fretful suspicions...of his presence and its consequences. And all of this emanates from a supposedly boring day at the office where nothing ever happens. As a temp, Bock must have longed for some change or folly to assuage the monotony of the daily grind. Perhaps the play was conceived as an imaginary diversion for the working class man?
Mullally is the second reason to see The Receptionist. She makes us laugh and at the same time care deeply about what is happening to Beverly Wilkins. There is an abrupt transition in her outlook, a paralyzing fear comes over her face, and we are afraid for her life. Mullally's is a subtle tour de force performance.
As written, it is the two female characters that are allowed to shine; the men have little to do but move the story forward.
DeLorenzo directs with an expert sense of the unknown, at least of how to fine tune it within the banal trappings of the menacing corporate world.
4 out of 5 stars


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