The Receptionist opens with a soggy biscuit of a monologue and ends with an inexplicable hiccup, but in between it is as crisp as a Necco Wafer and as chilling as death. Forget what you may have heard about this play: it is not Dilbert. It is not The Office. It is not even a comedy. It is a seventy-five minute meditation on the banality of evil, with plenty of banality, and even more evil.
Nancy Paris plays Beverly, The Receptionist’s receptionist, and as soon as you see her you will recognize her, from a thousand different offices on a thousand different occasions. Stolid and matronly, her principal office chore seems to be to convince callers that her boss (John Brennan) really isn’t in his office, and that they ought to express themselves on his voice mail. She works for the Northeast Office of a company, which has no name, only a logo – an incompletely-drawn star with lines coming out of it, like a tarot symbol. When she isn’t channeling her boss’ calls into voice-message limbo, she is giving her friends romantic advice over the phone, or listening to the woes of the office’s young associate Lorraine Taylor (Rachel Holt), a drama queen with the emotional maturity of a Jonas Brothers groupie. Lorraine is in love with a cad named Glen or Glenn, though she knows she should not be, and she vows to read the great self-help book Help! I’m in Love With a Narcissist! to learn how to deal with this affliction. Martin Dart (Adam Jonas Segaller), from the Central Office, drops in, looking for the boss, and Lorraine flirts with him. Dart flirts back. Beverly complains about the furniture, and later goes out for pastries. It seems like a theatrical Seinfeld – a play about nothing.
About midway in, it will also seem like this is an office about nothing – an office which offers no product or service, and exists just so that bored people can talk to each other. But there is a product…a product so horrid and disgusting that when it is put on the table, civilized people react with rage and nausea. Beverly, on the other hand, can talk about it as easily as she talks about her teacup collection. It is possible, as Hannah Arendt observed about the Nazis, to habituate to virtually anything.
So understood, this play is beautifully served by its cast. Beverly poses as a control freak, but Paris knows the character’s inner marshmallow, and puts it on display early and often. Lorraine, on the other hand, has steel and gunpowder beneath her whiny surface, and Holt prepares us superbly for her character’s surprising final act. Segaller, who has a special aptitude for high-intensity characters, gives Dart the self-obliterating joy of a zealot with a grant of power. And Brennan, as the only one on stage with a human conscience, shows a richness of tone which helps us identify what is wrong with the other characters.
Bock’s dialogue is full of incomplete sentences, gestures and inferences, but the cast moves the story narrative with balletic grace. For this, credit must go to Director Davis, who helps her actors establish their characters with great specificity (Beverley’s resort to a letter opener as a back scratcher and Lorraine’s assault on her own stockings were particularly effective.)
The Receptionist has some funny lines, but to call it a comedy would be to call Hamlet a comedy because the title character has some amusing dialogue with Polonius. The comic lines, which celebrate how thin and feeble the concerns which obsess us are, are doubly powerful when thrown up against the monstrous practices which animate the world of the play.
And this is the most horrifying part: had The Receptionist been written fifty or even thirty years ago, we would have seen the moral dystopia in which it played out as an extension of the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany, or some other malevolent pesthole of history.
Looking at it now, it seems like an extension of us.
By Adam Bock
Directed by Kate Van Burek Davis
Produced by Studio 2ndStage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: 1:15 with no intermission.
When: Wed through Sun until March 22. Sunday shows are at 7.30; all other shows at 8.30.
Where: Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.