“Will and Grace” star Megan Mullally dominates the stage as surely as her character, Beverly, dominates the Northeast Office’s anteroom in “The Receptionist,” Adam Bock’s miniature postmodern comedy-turned-paranoid chiller. If Bart DeLorenzo’s Evidence Room co-production with, and at, the Odyssey lacks some of its intended whip-crack impact, its sterling professionalism is well worth making an appointment for.
We’ve all worked with or encountered Bevs, those aides (usually but not exclusively female) of a certain age whose chirpy phone manner and memory for staff birthdays mask the need for utter control.
Mullally, a just-so bouffant vision in Ann Closs-Farley’s tasteful thrift-store tailoring, plays her phone like Rubinstein at the 88s to deftly juggle inbound messages and advice to lovelorn friends. (Bock’s ear for one-sided conversational snippets is a principal humor source.)
This Robocop of a petty bureaucrat carefully wipes away every trace of mess, not to mention all traces of the flamboyant class snobbery of Mullally’s signature Karen Walker role. Thesp has Bev accepting rather than judging the follies of perky, man-crazy co-worker Lorraine (a marvelous Jennifer Finnigan).
She even saddles Bev with what appears to be incipient arthritis, such that each movement from coffee pot to computer seems to chafe open wounds: the office job as hair shirt.
DeLorenzo amusingly shapes the everyday rhythms on Chris Covics’ hyperrealistic set until midway, when the rumpled Mr. Raymond (Steppenwolf mainstay Jeff Perry, sensational in this small but essential role) lets slip a hint of the firm’s real business, not to be revealed here. Suffice it to say a Central Office rep (the affable yet sinister Chris L. McKenna) begins raising questions about who in the firm knows what, sending the play spiraling into Kafka country. There it intrigues without quite raising the desired hackles.
Partly responsible for this muted response is the chosen take on Bev, who can be interpreted like the sherry she undoubtedly drinks after work: either sweet or dry. When an open-hearted earth mother is threatened, shudders may follow as her comfy facade starts cracking under pressure. But Mullally’s tart Bev is already in pain, so her imminent new peril doesn’t fill us with the dread it otherwise might.
More important, it’s only marginally shocking to be told that within every malevolent corporate structure sits a bourgeoise with stuffed animals, Purell and a raccoon calendar on her desk. The play cuts off before Bock can get past this familiar complicity-with-evil conceit, assuming he wants to.
Yet so meager is American political drama today that “The Receptionist’s” very existence is welcome. With the occasional exception of a Craig Wright or EM Lewis, and the frequent exception of Tony Kushner, few playwrights this side of the Atlantic evidence anything close to their British brethren’s curiosity and downright anger about how contemporary power is wielded.
Until they do, an audience hungry for food for thought will enjoy Bock’s hors d’oeuvre on a toothpick as they await a full meal.