What a Way to Make a Living

Many us of will experience a wave of vertigo upon heading upstairs at the Traffic Zone Center for The Receptionist, then wending our way to a makeshift theater crafted out of apparently vacant space: there’s the wood-veneer reception desk, the coffee maker, the coat rack, the trappings of the anonymous contemporary office. It’s as though we’ve ventured into the night only to spectate on the mundane setting of our workday life.

Of course this is no accident, and when Sally Wingert emerges and dons her headset in the title role, it is with a virtuosic sense of the ordinary. Answering call after call, gossiping, chiding, advising, and transferring to voice mail, watching her at close range is such a powerful demonstration of acting craft that we are lulled into a sense that there’s nothing more of consequence to come. We could simply watch her for an hour or so and call it an evening, having been drawn into work of such precision and subtlety that it feels like a window into a parallel existence.

But we’re at a play, and things do happen. We’re privy to the romantic foibles of office worker Lorraine (Sara Marsh), prone to falling in love with the self-obsessed and apparently the possessor of a less-than-sterling work ethic. Then there’s visitor Martin (Bill McCallum) from the home office, amiable and relaxed, happy to flirt with Lorraine beneath the receptionist’s chilly, judgmental eye until the arrival of boss Edward (Harry Waters Jr.).

It’s here where matters veer into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that Martin from corporate has come to administer an official reprimand, and that when Waters delivers a monologue on humane ways of gutting fish at the show’s opener, it’s dialogue that suddenly takes on added resonance.

At 75 minutes, here’s a work with assured pacing (Ben McGovern directs) and a sense of menace beneath the humdrum that builds on early laughter and ease until it delivers something else entirely. Playwright Adam Bock works within narrow boundaries here in terms of action, but his dialogue is micro-focused on the minutiae of work speech and convincingly locates an uncanny and menacing undertow—a bad dream beneath the nine-to-five inspired in equal parts by Kafka and the War on Terror.

Waters Jr. gives an understated performance as a conscience-stricken functionary that lends a welcome emotional weight—you get the sense that events happening to Edward offstage would constitute a second, worthy play of their own. But the deepest satisfaction here comes from Wingert, her range of expressions, her voice, her total inhabiting of the moral center of a morally unhinged work.

By the time it’s lights out on The Receptionist, it’s back to the working world—pleasingly enough, without the slightest sense of having clocked a minute’s overtime, and having chewed on an unsettling slow-burn mind-bomb of the kind that rattles around in dreams and memory for days to come.