Perfect Reception

Adam Bock's 'The Receptionist' is a deceptively complex work that intends to reinvent the concept of the office comedy

There are some individuals who can make your life exponentially easier if you consistently remind yourself how much power they wield. Waiters. Restaurant hosts. Bartenders (especially bartenders). Basically, the greater number of individuals in the service industry who believe you to be a good person the better.

And, of course, receptionists. There is no quicker way to be certain that your call will not be returned, no faster means of condemning yourself to a lifetime in voicemail purgatory than to be mean to the receptionist. Anyone who has ever controlled the power center that is the front desk of any institution knows this to be true.

'The Receptionist'
‘The Receptionist’
(Photo by Scott Suchman)

The coworker who smiles and makes small talk. The caller who cheerfully thanks you for your time. The boss who acknowledges often and loudly who is actually running the show. These are the individuals who will find they are earning the many benefits to be had from being friendly to and respectful of the receptionist.

Fitting then that Adam Bock has chosen this often overlooked individual to be the focus of his play The Receptionist, now unfolding on Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage.

A deceptively complex work that intends to reinvent the concept of the office comedy, The Receptionist plays with the idea of who knows how much and how good a thing that ultimately is.

We are welcomed into Bock’s world by Edward Raymond (John Brennan), a nebbish type taking a break from a work appointment to talk to us about his true passion. Fly fishing. Not for food so much as for the sport of it. He’s a catch-and-release kind of guy.

Raymond’s revelry is broken as fast as a weak cell-phone signal, as his monologue jars closed and we drop into the lobby of the ”Northeast Office.” This is Beverly’s (Nancy Paris) domain. She will offer you coffee, gossip with you about the unsuitable man you are seeing and break from her own stream of telephone calls to courteously drop one person after another into voicemail. For the period of time you must occupy one of her reception-area chairs she will be your counselor and best friend. Unless you take one of the good pens from her desk and forget to return it. That’s kind of frowned upon.

It’s in the midst of one of Beverly’s relationship debriefings with her colleague Lorraine (Rachel Holt) that Martin Dart (Adam Jonas Segaller) from the Central Office arrives to see Mr. Raymond and it is from this utterly benign occurrence that Bock commences to draw a swift and razor-sharp spiral.

THE RECEPTIONIST
starstarstarstar
To March 22
Studio Theatre
2nd Stage
1501 14th St. NW
$30
202-332-3300
www.studiotheatre.org

Bock’s finest achievement with The Receptionist is how deftly he moves his audience from the excruciatingly familiar — the magazine-filled lobby of any suit-and-tie workplace — to the disarmingly familiar. Think of Bock’s transformation as the equivalent of watching a favorite sitcom in a language foreign from its original creation. Happy Days in Farsi. You recognize everything and everyone but understand nothing. It’s an intriguing conceit that occasionally stumbles for the sake of maintaining its secrets, but that is only recognizable when viewed in the rearview mirror.

The play benefits a great deal by being trusted to the hands of a terrific ensemble. Particularly entertaining is the well-developed relationship between Paris and Holt. Anyone who has spent any time in an office will instantly recognize Holt’s character Lorraine and will roll their eyes right along with Beverly. The two actors clearly understand the symbiotic relationship the two women have — Lorraine needs Beverly as much as Beverly needs someone like Lorraine to need her — and play it out flawlessly.

The Receptionist is not the play you expect it to be, just as the names on the office letterhead rarely reveal who’s really in charge. That you only discover once you step inside and spend some time in reception.