Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Receptionist (The SOB Review)

The Receptionist (The SOB Review) - Manhattan Theatre Club NY City Center Stage I, New York, NY

** (out of ****)

If you've ever thought you had a bad day at the office, you don't have anything on The Receptionist Beverly Wilkins, played with a pugnacious and persnickety piquancy by the superb Jayne Houdyshell.

Ironically running Off-Broadway at a time when the Great White Way is offering a chilly reception to its guests, Adam Bock's appropriately named play stands ready and willing to welcome you to the Northeast Office. The question is whether you'll ever leave.

Exuding all the warmth of an even creepier version of "The Office" mixed in with a healthy dash of "The Minority Report" for good measure, The Receptionist is a mildly amusing, quirky trifle on the goings-on around the titular desk.

Under Joe Mantello's direction, the 90-minute intermissionless comedy, opens on the professional-looking Mr. Raymond (an understated and underused Robert Foxworth) extolling the virtues of fishing. His brief monologue nears its conclusion as he divulges the most merciful means of killing a fish when it's been caught the wrong way. He ends by adding that he eats said fish.

In what appears to be an incongruous juxtapostion, the scene quickly fades to the next with Wilkins at her desk, chirping with what you're superficially to surmise are random phone callers, both business and personal. She advises some of them that her boss Mr. Raymond has yet to arrive, while offering others stern advice. Through it all, neatnik Beverly is fastidious to a T.

Never mind that she's intermittently interrupted by the eternally late Lorraine Taylor (Kendra Kassebaum, a one-time Glinda casting a spell as a deceptively ditzy flirt) -- for whom she offers a mix of disapproving judgement and counsel -- or the menacing charmer Mr. Dart from the Central Office (an alternately silly and threatening Josh Charles). Beverly soldiers on as the self-appointed, omniscient lieutenant to the absent Mr. Raymond.

Without giving away too much, let me just say little does she know that her happy cubicle-sized kingdom is about to take a dramatic left turn into "The Twilight Zone," lifting the sitcom-style banter into the unexpected, but not quite far enough. Unfortunately, while Bock lulls you early on into thinking this is some pedestrian comedy, the left hook he packs never quite lands with all the force it should to be completely compelling or chilling.

Yet heaven knows I could watch Jayne Houdyshell read the phonebook, which as The Receptionist she practically does. Unlike the play, she never leaves you hanging on hold.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 13 November, 2007, Blogger Esther said...

I definitely agree with you on this one - the play didn't quite have enough punch at the end. I left the theater not quite knowing what it all meant. But wow, I loved Jayne Houdyshell's performance. One of the great things about seeing five plays in three days is that you really get a sense of what works and what doesn't work. For me, I think strong, memorable characters are key. You can make all the deep, thought-provoking points you want, but it still comes down to the people up on stage, are they creating characters that have staying power. And more than a week later, I can still picture Houdyshell sitting at that desk answering the phone, offering advice to Lorraine. This was my first time seeing her, and I really thought she was terrific.

At 03 January, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good review. It's the one I'll copy, paste and send to express my own experience. Comparatively, the New York Times Review was a fluff piece.

Playwright Adam Bock is obviously very talented, but I found myself wishing he'd push his wit into more idiosyncratic places instead of going for the more expected laugh.

I found myself sitting through the play with the kind of tense smiling face one has when wishing, almost willing, the humor to break through into a delightfully fresh place.

There was appreciative laughter sprinkled throughout the audience, but never a true release, never a moment of being taken beyond well-written sitcom territory.

Because of this, the dark part felt somewhat pastiched, as though it hadn't been earned. I wasn't relaxed enough to be shocked or moved by the switch. I was still willing the lines to be better, still willing the play to convince me, to relax and release me into the experience.

I thought that Houdyshell and Josh Charles, particularly, did a great job with what they were given. Charles was refreshingly right-on in his mannered depiction of this type of corporate interaction.

And of course, this couldn't have been achieved without Bock's writing. But I just wish Bock had gone a little further, broken open, hit an untouched nerve.

At 03 January, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous.

Funny, I haven't read The New York Times piece, but I'll have to. I was surprised by how many "Best of" lists for 2007 included this play. Like you, I just wished for more, including the idiosyncratic.

Thanks again, and let me know if we agree on other shows, too!


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