Workplace Comedy Is Tough Sell
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
At first, Studio Theatre's "The Receptionist" appears to belong in the same tower of corporate irony as NBC's "The Office." Set in the bland, Muzak-filled confines of a generically outfitted reception area, Adam Bock's short play starts down the promising road of deadpan workplace satire.
But while "The Office" manages to remind audiences weekly of the bottomless comic potential in businessman banality, "The Receptionist" inadvertently reveals some of the genre's pitfalls. Intended both to send up office folkways and to creep us out over the nefarious transactions that such a sterile environment might disguise, Bock's play and Studio's production are only marginally successful at either. The evening is neither as funny nor as spooky as it strives to be.
Bock is a social satirist of eccentric charm, as he demonstrated in his loopy shark-dates-man play "Swimming in the Shallows" last year at Catalyst Theater. In "The Receptionist," he is melding notions cute and sinister, a combination that director Kate Van Burek Davis and her cast cannot, for the most part, bring together harmoniously for Studio's 2ndStage program.
The observational comedy of Bock's play requires a refined degree of timing that's not consistently achieved here. Although there are funny moments -- especially in the exchanges between Rachel Holt's high-strung office worker Lorraine and Nancy Paris's Beverly, the nosy lady who guards her inventory of pens at the reception desk -- Davis's choppy production exhausts the situation long before the house lights come back up.
Comedies enshrining workaday tedium, such as the aforementioned "Office" and Mike Judge's cult-classic movie "Office Space," have conditioned us to expect drollery at the sight of any room with a water cooler. That's why we are happy to be absorbed into the uninviting grayness of Hannah J. Crowell's set: the kind of place where no one should ever be forced to spend more than a day.
Over Beverly's horseshoe-shaped desk hangs the curious company logo, a star and two vertical stripes -- vaguely, perhaps even ominously, patriotic. "Northeast office!" is the chirpy phone greeting of Beverly, who wears over her blouse a vest embroidered with cardinals resting on tree branches, the kind she might have sewn in adult-education class. (Kudos to costume designer Ana Marie A. Salamat.)
For the longest time, we are flies on the wall, witnesses to Beverly's dull office rituals. Meanwhile, Lorraine zips in and out of her office, fretting over her unsatisfying love life while awaiting the arrival of the branch manager, Mr. Raymond (John Brennan). The day's routine is interrupted with the unscheduled surfacing of Mr. Dart (Adam Jonas Segaller), a persistent young man with a crazy, forced smile who has come from the "central office" on an urgent errand.
What that assignment might be takes "The Receptionist" into the realm of the chilling -- but not as surprisingly as the playwright might imagine.
Enjoyment of the play depends on an appreciation of Beverly. She's one of those low-on-the-totem-pole workers who by dint of personality and dedication threads herself into the very fabric of the place. While Paris lets you believe in Beverly as de facto ruler of the roost -- especially as she acts out the day's mindless drudgeries -- you're not quite as aware as you want to be of Beverly's utter self-confidence, her pride in her little kingdom. So it's not as devastating as you'd expect when the control of her domain begins to unravel.
Awkwardness manifests itself in some of the performances. Holt's Lorraine, however, is a swell creation, and ultimately the actress carries off a nifty bit of deception. It's the cleanest sleight-of-hand this slight entertainment allows.
The Receptionist, by Adam Bock. Directed by Kate Van Burek Davis. Lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Elisheba Ittoop. About 75 minutes.