Adam Bock is repeating himself. In last year’s play, “The Thugs,” he created an office in which small talk was a desperate distraction from offstage horror. In “The Receptionist,” premiering in a Joe Mantello production for Manhattan Theater Club, the title character rules her lobby like a queen, but her power is only an imaginary shield from what’s unfolding in the executive suite. Once again, the journey to the ghastly truth is engrossing, but Bock has already proven his gift for suspense. It’s time for his conceits to become more than stylish games.
As it stands, this 70-minute show is an expertly produced gimmick. Like a boardwalk magician, it convinces us we’re seeing an aggressively normal world, then rips off that facade with a flourish.
Bock and director Mantello lace the production with sinister clues — a woman races across the stage without explanation, a man describes gutting a fish — but they only make sense in retrospect. At first, they’re just part of the plotless collection of details that comprises the opening half-hour.
It’s an enormous risk to devote so much time to nothing. Auds could easily wander as receptionist Beverly (Jayne Houdyshell) answers the phone, dispenses love advice to co-worker Lorraine (Kendra Kassebaum) and orders a birthday cake for her boss Mr. Raymond (Robert Foxworth), who’s unusually late for work.
This empty time has a purpose, however. We’re not only meant to accept this office as average, but also to fall in love with Beverly. If we can root for her — and maybe see ourselves in her little routines — we will feel more terrorized by what happens later.
Of course, even a slight misstep could make Beverly boring, but Houdyshell never slips. She gives us a workplace hero who’s too old to put up with sass but too playful to stop gossiping. Her endless stream of stage business — cleaning her computer screen, caressing a pastry before she eats it, guarding her favorite pen — makes her seem fully alive, and her expert timing proves she’s the coolest lady in the building.
Plus, Bock has an ear for useless chatter. Even throwaway lines are insights into character. Reveling in Mr. Raymond’s birthday card, Beverly giggles, “A pony with a pipe! People are crazy!” What else do you need to know about her sense of humor?
As helmer Anne Kauffman did with “The Thugs,” Mantello maintains this quotidian tone even after we learn what kind of company Beverly works for. An off-handed, gruesome exchange between Lorraine and Mr. Raymond doesn’t stop Beverly from fussing with her mini-fridge. Her lack of interest is chilling.
This moment is clearly meant to provide moral weight, as are subsequent events. But despite being well staged, the twists are too familiar to resonate. Plenty of characters have turned a blase eye to evil, and plenty, like Beverly, haven’t grown a conscience until they are personally affected.
If all this were just introductory material, it would be satisfying, but Bock ends his play at the moment real thinking could begin. Maybe someday he’ll write a second act and rescue “The Receptionist” from superficiality.