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.