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.