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The Receptionist

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Receptionist
Jayne Houdyshell
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's impossible now to believe that Jayne Houdyshell could ever have been a struggling actress. But since overnight successes are very rare, and since history will note Houdyshell didn't achieve hers in New York until about three and a half years ago, chances are there was a time when her every juicy glare and comically reproving manner were not the talk of the town. If her riveting work at the center of Adam Bock's uneven play The Receptionist, which just opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is any guide, she must have been one heck of a temp in those lean early years.

That's right, an actress playing a secretary - and not of state - is giving one of the few must-see performances on any New York stage. This is not, for the record, as incongruous as it might seem. Beverly is no run-of-the-mill answerer of phones, but rather at the top of her (admittedly limited) profession, capable of juggling multiple personal, professional, and political crises with the grace of an Olympic figure skater. So smoothly does she move from extinguishing one fire at home with her daughter to calming the tensions at her mission-critical workplace, you feel she could get a job in anger management or conflict avoidance just by asking for it. How else could she rise to the exalted position of receptionist at the crucial Northeast Office?

It's perhaps best not to ask too many questions about what the Northeast Office is - that deflects too much attention away from the receptionist and onto The Receptionist. Bock's play, despite being one of the classier denunciations of the Bush administration, doesn't withstand that kind of scrutiny, especially not as directed here by Joe Mantello. In the proper hands, this play could be a suspense-drenched deconstruction of the terror-inflicting schemes of those who fight terror. At MTC, those darker overtones are almost entirely absent, leaving Houdyshell and her three excellent castmates - Josh Charles, Robert Foxworth, and Kendra Kassebaum - the insurmountable task of constructing an entire dysfunctional world on their own.

The Receptionist
Kendra Kassebaum, Jayne Houdyshell, Josh Charles, and Robert Foxworth.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But they can, and do, make the human stories at the center of The Receptionist almost compelling enough to carry the evening. Foxworth plays the boss, Mr. Raymond, with plenty of regret-cracked resolve, his thorough affection for his personal mission tarnished by his dangerously unquestioning patriotism. Kassebaum is winning as Raymond's dopey-blonde assistant, flirtatious and in love with a hopeless narcissist, and easily traverses her character's journey from a confident collaborator to the aggressively accused. Charles is ideal as the handsome, affable stranger from the Central Office (uh oh) tasked with asking questions until he gets the answers he wants.

If the setup is obvious and the resolution just as much as so, the lack of surprises can't disguise the craft and elegance of Bock's treatment. It establishes in very little time - the play runs scarcely 70 minutes - a tightly knit American microcosm about to be unwound, at first wearing its disarming manner on its sleeve but quickly shedding it when the inconsequentialities become too serious to ignore. The disintegration of the ordered world, represented by the expert Beverly holding court at its nucleus, is handled so deftly that you're well in the midst of it before you're aware it's begun. Bock doesn't allow enough time to fully develop every idea, and the final 10 minutes drive the action to its easily foreseeable conclusion before the characters involved could have believably arrived there on their own, but the play is never for a minute boring.

It's also never terrifying, and it should be. The Receptionist is about the viral oppressiveness of suspicion, and how it consumes everyone associated with it, but Mantello never imparts the necessary sense that the people onstage are about to be eaten alive. He's paced the show from beginning to end as a hard-pushing comedy, rather than encouraging the gentle ebb and flow characteristic of any great nail-biter. Even the usually reliable set designer David Korins misses the mark, though in the opposite way: His office-adrift-in-the-void set is too eerie to be anything but a harbinger of doom, and never convincing as anything other than a place where Bad Things happen.

Houdyshell, on the other hand, displays an artist's palette of colors, becoming ever more vivid and surprising as her life dissolves into black and white around her. You can never be quite sure how she'll react or when she'll crack under the strain of trying to support both her job and her humanity as it becomes increasingly clear the two are mutually exclusive. Yet she never calls attention to any of it, instead imbuing the simplest actions - routing and commenting on incoming calls or closing the office for the day - with a beauty that reminds you that ordinary people can be superheroes.

Beverly isn't that far removed from Ann Kron, the role in Well that signaled to New York audiences Houdyshell was a talent of notable magnitude. Both women, facing major changes in their way of life, must battle society's prevailing wisdom to achieve right - at whatever cost. And neither can comprehend the full depth of her sacrifice. Watching Houdyshell navigate the rocky roads of The Receptionist, you understand all too intimately what Beverly is losing and what everyone else is gaining, a major achievement in a play where characters and actors alike are battling against dehumanization. Houdyshell, however, is one of a kind, with a singular strength and Everywoman charm that will hopefully ensure she'll never need to quit this perfect fit of day job she's now found.


The Receptionist
Through December 23
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenues
For Tickets call CityTix at 212.581.1212