Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Receptionist, Reconsidered

An early draft of my review of Trinity Rep's The Receptionist began conditionally--you may or may not like the show, I thought, depending on what you think theater is best at, or good for--but a friend of mine discouraged me from equivocating. "You didn't like it," she said. "Don't try to be nice." She was right that a reviewer shouldn't try to be nice, but I was wrong, I believe, to retreat from this position, as feeble and impractical as it may seem. I didn't like the show because it was not exciting to watch; it didn't use dramatic form or language to advance a perspective, a concern. But I have thought about it nearly constantly since last week, and if you think that theater--or any art--works better as nourishment than emetic, then it may be that this thinking, that goes on for days after a show, justifies it.

Also, what I wrote? It was wrong. Kind of.

Adam Bock was not suggesting that theater contorts language and theatrical language obscures real problems, but that people who fail to think theatrically--who do not converse in textured, supple language with themselves--
will also fail to make moral decisions. The rigorous consideration that is a part of serious theater, that is, the tortured inquiry of the monologue, is also a part of being a moral human. The one character in Bock's play who is given a monologue, Mr. Raymond, is also the closest to distinguishing between the simulacrum and the real--this monologue, which I thought that the play undermined, is actually its own scene and honored by preeminence. Unlike any other character in the show, Mr. Raymond can communicate with himself; he demonstrates what Hannah Arendt called "a root-striking process of thinking." Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil," itself rendered a limp, if not evil, banality by time and overuse, has already been invoked by critics to describe, and inadvertently simplify, The Receptionist's theme; but none has talked about her notion of solitude, thinking, and speaking: To be with myself and to judge by myself is articulated and actualized in the processes of thought, and every thought process is an activity in which I speak to myself about whatever happens to concern me. Thinking is the conversation between the talker and the talked-to; thinking is a monologue. This thinking, which is, after all, only speaking, proscribes extreme evil. There are no other monologues in The Receptionist because there are no other thinking characters. They have no relationship, no conversation, with the people their actions have turned them into, or the people they once were.

One can fault Bock for failing to find the dramatic in his schematic--it addresses the brain rather than the heart, or, better still, the body. Theater can make us tremble; it ought to be tectonic. The Receptionist is a drama in retrospect--it's like finding out from the news that the vague unease you felt the night before was because of a mild earthquake. That phenomenon is explained, but the problem of having a home on a fault line remains unexamined.

One can also, incidentally, fault Bock for giving the male character this heroic insight and for writing the receptionist, Bev, as the quintessential work-drone. Mr. Raymond's crisis may find him unrepentant, but at least he suffers a crisis at all: it is better, Arendt quotes, to suffer wrong than to do wrong. The worst thing about Bev is that she has no sense of what "wrong" or "suffering" are; she is blissfully oblivious to her own responsibility for her fate.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Trinity Rep's The Receptionist

The Receptionist is a new play by Adam Bock, and Trinity Rep should be commended for performing its New England premier—they have taken a chance with an unfamiliar playwright's untested play, and it has been directed creatively and performed adroitly. I only wish I liked it more. The show gleams with novelty and timeliness, and has the gloss of relevance, but one wonders if it is really a jewel or just carefully polished glass. This turns out to be the central question of the play itself: after all, don’t we prefer the fake when the price of the real is too high? I don't want to give away the nature of the awful reality concealed by the brisk professionalism of receptionist Beverly Wilkins (Janice DuClos) and the vapid temporizing of office-worker Lorraine Taylor (Angela Brazil); suffice it to say, the business conducted by the Northeast Office, darkly adumbrated by Edward Raymond (Timothy Crowe) in his opening monologue, is repugnant. This monologue, addressed to an unseen character onstage but directed towards the audience, ends with his ambiguous and sinister professional courtesy, "Let's get you set up." He seems to speak for Bock himself, who has structured his play as a prolonged, elaborate, and occasionally very funny set-up; the problem is that it is also dramatically inert. If satire is an instrument for revealing truth, The Receptionist's mild humor is a crucible with no flame. Only in the second half does Bock apply heat, but by then it may be too late.

The strength of the play is Bock’s language, which splices the theatrical to the vernacular. He has obviously read David Mamet and has most likely enjoyed his share of Monty Python sketches—like them, his writing exaggerates the absurdity of most of our conversations—but his subject doesn't seem worthy of these antecedents or his own formidable talent; it is too easy. Bev chats on the phone with her profligate friend Cheryl Lynn while putting professional calls indifferently through to her bosses' voicemail; Lorraine races in late, a story about her bus spilling preemptively and guiltily out of her; they talk about Lorraine's unenviable love life, which has stalled with Glen, a certified narcissist; handsome Martin Dart (Timothy John Smith) arrives from the Central Office, hoping to meet with Mr. Raymond, who is, unusually, running late as well; Lorraine is smitten by Mr. Dart and finds, to her surprise, that her feelings are—or appear to be—reciprocated; Dart accosts Mr. Raymond when he finally arrives, and tells him he’s needed at the Central Office—a visit, we understand, that is to be censorious rather than congratulatory.

Ricocheting across this banal surface are some terrific (and some inane) jokes and arch observations about office life, all angled playfully and expertly by the cast. Janice DuClos, one of the bright stars of Providence theater, is, as always, powerful. She can be funny, officious, affectionate, and wounded; she always seems so alive on the stage, sensitive to the melody of language and, though she is sitting for most of the show, vulnerable to the force of the world’s pleasures and frustrations. Timothy John Smith, who glowered magnificently as the hulking boxer Le Mec in last spring’s Paris By Night, is given a chance to prove he also knows how to speak. His Dart isn’t nearly so pointed as the name suggests; although he is cunning, he is more lubricious than sharp. I cannot help feeling that Angela Brazil is being used reductively by Trinity these days: for the third consecutive show, she is asked to convulse like a box of jumping beans, and by the end, you wonder which of you is more exhausted. I suppose her hysterics are actually the worm of anxiety shifting inside her—that is, they are effect rather than mere affect, and proof of actorly commitment, but the performance left me reeling. Timothy Crowe, as the boss of the office, also left me unsettled, but because his performance is so quiet, so faltering. His Mr. Raymond sees through the artifice of his life but lacks the temerity to finally renounce it; he stands uncertainly at the intersection of bleak disappointment and pragmatic self-deception.

And so we come back to the problem of the play, which is that it’s a scam, a diversion. The show’s punch is of the sucker variety, not the emotional—though it will knock the breath out of you just the same, because it is delivered suddenly and subtly by Ms. DucClos and Ms. Brazil (whose second-half performance is much more interesting than her first). This punch comes in the form of a revelation that suggests depths to the world of the play that are not tested, or even suggested, by what comes before it. What’s missing from this world is conflict. What’s missing is discovery, which is not the same as shock. What’s missing is the sense that character and language and gesture are tools, or weapons, in the negotiation of principles; that theater is emissary; that drama is revanchist; that words are to be are fought over, persuaded, recruited, and deployed; and something, be it power, or love, or dignity, is to be won back. In The Receptionist’s clever language, there is no plot being forwarded, no loss being measured, no triumph being planned. To Bock, language is merely fun: it is not part of the problem or the solution. So the idiom, the indiscriminate likes and I was all and he was alls, the jokes about Flom, Minnesota--are these all just to show how trivial we become when the alternative is to face hell? Speech, like theater itself, is brought into the public arena and shown to be comically impotent, or at least distracting; the play is about acting, and acting, to Bock, is avoidance. This may, indeed, be true—Bock’s play posits a problem beyond language, although language is certainly contorted to accommodate it—but it cheapens the theater-going experience. We have spent the night laughing with characters whom we are meant to recognize from our own lives and who, it turns out, are merely actors themselves. Theater, then, is all about the audience: Look at what you are, Bock says. He is silent on why we prefer the ersatz to the authentic, or what it is like to choose the one over the other, or what it does to the soul to live with this decision; he sends us out into the world, clutching a bauble--a jewel, or cut glass?--of indeterminate value and vague purpose.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Week That Will Be...

Trinity Rep finished previews of Adam Bock's The Receptionist last night and opens the show officially this evening. By the puckered look on audience-members' faces after the show, one suspects that it is an antidote to the plague of holiday cheer that threatens to lift our spirits and distract our thoughts from the sourness of life. I have looked at the script--briefly and superficially--and can't wait to hear Trinity's actors interpret its rich, repetitious language. (At Trinity Repertory Theater through January 11th.)

In the same neighborhood, the Brown/Trinity Consortium is performing Charles Mee's Full Circle, a re-imagining of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, which itself re-imagined an interpretation of the 14th-century Chinese play Circle of Chalk, by Li Xingdao. Mee contributes this economy of ideas by making all of his scripts available, for pleasure and for plunder, on his website. Take a look, and then see the show (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 2:00 & 7:30; Sunday at 2:00 and 7:30; Monday at 6:00).

2nd Story Theatre had intended to wrap The Miracle Worker this weekend but, one hopes because of universally positive reviews, has instead extended its run through next weekend.

For something less cerebral, I suspect, but provocative in its own way, try the Gamm Theatre, where Casey Seymour Kim, savage in last season's Boston Marriage and irrepressible in the recent An Ideal Husband, stars in Miss Pixie's Cable Access Extravaganza!!, an original one-woman play. Interestingly, Miss Pixie's Cable Access Extravaganza!! is not based on Caucasian Chalk Circle.