On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell conducted the first telephone conversation. Speaking on the line to his assistant, he uttered, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Bell’s invention required people to answer it, and thus the profession of the telephone receptionist was born. In Adam Bock’s play The Receptionist, the redoubtable Jayne Houdyshell plays that necessary role. Surrounded by office paraphernalia, attired in bright blazers, lorgnette dangling across her ample bosom, she uses her close-set eyes and small mouth to great effect. During even the briefest call, myriad sensations play across her face: warmth, exasperation, puzzlement, boredom.
The Manhattan Theatre Club audience seemed to experience similar emotions. In the lobby after the show, a woman who had apparently enjoyed the play said to her friend, “I didn’t know what was going on at all!” Actually, Bock has written a relatively simple (though not at all simplistic) play,
somewhat confused by Joe Mantello’s direction. A companion piece to Bock’s last-season triumph, The Thugs, The Receptionist also concerns an ordinary office where ferocity lurks— and then surfaces. While Houdyshell’s Beverly, Kendra Kassebaum’s Lorraine, and Robert Foxworth’s Mr. Raymond chit-chat, it emerges that their agency performs distasteful labor: the interrogation and torture of various “clients.”
Squaring such cruelty with Beverly’s teddy-bear-bedecked computer is a directorial challenge, one that Mantello never meets. While The Thugs, directed by Anne Kauffman, immediately established an environment at once sinister and recognizable, The Receptionist‘s office never feels real. (David Korins’s set, which combines the ominous and the tacky, is partly to blame.) Mantello never helps Bock explain why these people engage in these practices, how they justify the use of torture, why their office is so understaffed.
Bock has cut a considerable swath downtown with his funny and discomfiting plays (The Typographer’s Dream, Five Flights), each one a mélange of quotidian dialogue and structural ambition. This uptown foray doesn’t fare as well, owing to the mismatch of play and director, and perhaps also of playwright and venue. But later this season, Playwrights Horizons will offer Bock’s Drunken City, directed by Trip Cullman. We’ll hold till then.