By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
Something quite ominous is happening at the Central Office — the mysterious workplace floating somewhere outside the walls of Theater LaB Houston, where Adam Bock's The Receptionist is getting its regional premiere. The playwright, a Canadian who's spent his writing life in the States, has been making quite a stir in theatrical circles these days; he won an Obie in 2006 for The Thugs. He's garnered lots of press for his jarring mix of banal comedic dialogue and surreal happenings (one script imagines a love affair between a man and a shark), and The Receptionist is no different. The hour-long tale starts off in the drab world of Everyoffice, only to make a sharp left into the underbelly of...well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The play opens with a startlingly moving segment full of smart, ironic foreshadowing. An unidentified man (Bob Boudreaux) stands with his back to the wall, a spotlight blazing in his eyes, recounting his memories — first of hunting, then of fly-fishing. What is most odd about his story is that he hated hunting and didn't even keep the fish that he caught. His tenderness is jarring in its intensity. He despairs over the violence he found himself enacting. We won't know who he is, or why this moment is so significant, until much later.
After a fast blackout, we arrive in an office, a space remarkable only for its absolute corporate ordinariness. Mid-level slick, this oddly seductive world has all the stuff of corporate life — fancy seats for waiting clients and a big desk for the receptionist, neatly arranged with papers, pens, pencils and a phone full of buttons. The banality of the set lies at the soul of Bock's story. It's the ordinariness that makes what happens later so terrifying.
At the center of this story is the tidy and matronly Beverly Wilkins (Terri Branda Carter), the receptionist of the title, who watches over her desk with mother-hen vigilance, counting every pen she hands out. She answers her phone with soothing, office-y seductiveness; it's the sort of patient, calm voice that can drive you mad if you can't get past it.
For all her efficiency, Beverly's no robot. There's nothing she loves more than gossiping, either on the phone with her badly behaving best friend or in the office with the scatterbrained Lorraine Taylor (Krysti Wilson), a pretty young blond who disappears into the room on the right occasionally to do some work. Lorraine manages to rank higher than a receptionist on the corporate food chain, but her main attributes seem to have something to do with the very short skirts she wears to work. Beverly doesn't appear to mind too much — she enjoys catty comments about Lorraine when she isn't there, but Lorraine also makes Beverly's life more interesting. They get to talk about all the wild nights and bad men Lorraine spends her time on.
Bock crafts the poetry of this play from this language of the dull and boring. Nobody says anything the audience hasn't heard a thousand times before. But this cast, under Carolyn Houston Boone's rapid-fire direction, finds both the provocative and the bizarre in this funny world full of dark shadows.
When Martin Dart (Alan Heckner) arrives from the Central Office asking for a Mr. Raymond, who is very late for work, we know some sort of crack has just occurred along the surface. Dart, whose name is meaningful, is a corporate drone. He elicits motherly advice from Beverly about his paste-eating son — she tells him not to worry — and he flirts horribly with hungry Lorraine, even though he's very married. He could be any office turd, just a guy women should ignore and men probably like well enough.
It's not until Mr. Raymond finally arrives and lets us know what he's been up to that we get an idea of what this business does and why Dart's name is important. But that would be getting to the end, which we can't do here, as that would unmake the hoodoo going on under the surface of Bock's alluring dialogue. We'll just say that it's worth it to wait with this receptionist and see what happens once we get past her desk.