We come into the world, we rub our eyes, we look around and squall, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out why we had to bother. For us and the people in Adam Bock’s The Receptionist, which Roger Williams University Barn Summer Theatre is presenting through June 21, briskly directed by Dorisa S. Boggs, that’s also metaphorically true.
Unfortunately, this is a one-note one-act, since its 80 minutes rely on an eventual surprise understanding of what has been going on, a note that resounds for the final 20 minutes as we witness the consequences of what has preceded. It wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and left me greedy for more.
Late daily to her private office is Lorraine Taylor (Kristina Dahlene), who apparently so dislikes her unspecified work that she always misses her bus. The boss must be Mr. Raymond (Robert Gillet), since we aren’t told his first name. With only receptionist Beverly Wilkins (Katie van der Sleesen) at her desk, tension is introduced by the arrival of Martin Dart (Mick Jones) from the central office to see Mr. Raymond for unspecified reasons. The place seems to be run by the receptionist, who purrs a sugary “Northeast office” in answering the phone, even if she was upset a beat before.
At the opening we don’t even know we’re supposed to be puzzled. It’s a perfectly ordinary office situation, with gossip and conflicts, a lazy worker here, a peculiar boss there. But we can consider this humorous drama as a subtle sort of mystery, the reward coming in assembling the hints and figuring out how this world differs from ours. (Of course, if we’re to learn from any moral it presents, we’d have to conclude that it’s not different from our own in essence, only in particulars.)
The hints are in the preamble to the play. Before the office action, Mr. Raymond addresses us off-stage under a spotlight. He’s talking about how he loves flyfishing, the graceful curve of the line slowly whipping back and forth, the catch, the release of the fish if it’s not injured. If it is damaged, a merciful killing it is next, he tells us. “And that’s okay,” he says. “Because everything out there is eating something.”
Should I have announced “spoiler alert”? I don’t think so. Consider that an ambiguous pocket guide to the dark undercurrent flowing between any chirpy exchanges in these proceedings. Carry it around and pat it reassuringly when you fear getting lost.
Sometimes a play’s payoff is simply in its illuminating or entertaining process. Ongoing humor and the interplay among characters are probably what’s made The Receptionist successful in other productions. But the opening night foray was a bit shaky, with occasional hesitations and faltering in dialogue that needed to flow as smoothly as anecdotes around the morning water cooler. This is probably inevitable without extra rehearsal, since playwright Bock’s dialogue is full of fidgets, halts, and half-expressed thoughts, especially when the speaker is nervous or excited, a common state here. Characters sometimes have to switch from contra dance to Apache dance on the fly.