The evidEnce Room and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Strangely, playwright Adam Bock has written The Receptionist about my late Aunt Jane. How he met her and why he decided to create an entire play around her is something of a conundrum, especially since there’s nothing in his bio about spending time hanging out with my aunt at her Lladro-stuffed condo in Downers Grove, Illinois.
I was also astounded that Megan Mullally had spent enough time there at home with Jane, probably dining on those inedible Sloppy Joes she always fed her infrequent guests before her death from terminal crankiness several years ago, to recreate her so flawlessly in this performance. I didn’t even guess Aunt Jane watched such vile filth as Will & Grace, let alone be gracious enough to welcome one of its stars into her home for extensive personal study of her many quirks
Then again, at the opening night reception after its Odyssey Theatre debut, no one gathered seemed to share my thought that the play was about my crusty old aunt. Not that any of them knew dear Jane, however, but because each and every one of them thought The Receptionist instead was written about someone they knew.
Beverly Wilkins (Mullally) works the front desk at a typically design-free regional office, craftily non-designed by Unknown Theatre’s Chris Covics and lit by Christopher Kuhl with enough neutral hues to make the lobby of Kaiser Hospital appear colorful in comparison. There Beverly’s monotonous daily chores include answering phones (“Can I put you into to his voicemail? Heeeere you go!” is her repeated mantra), filling the jar on her counter with Skittles, and wiping everything off with tissue and hand sanitizer.
It would be a boring way to spend a day, one might assume, but Beverly seems to be perfectly fine with it. As long as she can listen to sound designer John Zalewski’s subtle Muzak track meander through “The Girl from Ipanema” while vicariously nosing her way into conversations about her coworkers’ love lives and sneaking in a few frantic calls from her daughter and husband, who’s considering spending the money allotted for this month’s phone bill to buy a vintage teacup to add to their collection, Beverly seems quite content with her miserably dull existence, obsessing over a birthday card (“A pony with a pipe! People are crazy!”) and forever keeping track of her wandering Super-Fine Point Flexors (“Now there’s a good pen!”).
It seems The Receptionist’s sloppy, perpetually tardy officemate Lorraine (Jennifer Finnigan, who has the face of Jane Krakowski and the comic timing of Milton Berle) is more interested in getting laid than doing her job—whatever that may be—but her interest in Martin Dart (the eventually ominously mercurial Chris L. McKenna), a visitor from the firm’s central office, leaves Beverly frustrated, either because she’s worried about Lorraine’s future or because she’s jealous as hell that her coworker’s life is more than Handi-Wipes and collectible teacups.
Still, as Beverly points out, “You never know who a person is until you know them.” Even though the first hour of Bock’s 70-minute play appears to be about the tediousness of office politics, things are not what they seem. While Dart remains planted across from Beverly’s desk waiting for the girls’ mysteriously absent boss Edward Raymond (a jarringly subtle Jeff Perry) to surface and Lorraine continues to bat her eyelashes at their equally flirtatious caller, the humdrum quality of the office’s daily routine begins to metamorphose, as though Part One of The Receptionist should air on Lifetime and the end on the SciFi Channel.
Mr. Raymond finally returns, bursting into the office with more than a restrained air of fearful desperation. Before he disappears again—for good this time, it seems—and before Beverly can say “Can I put you into his voicemail? Heeeere you go!” one last time, Bock’s Nora Ephron-y turn eerily mutates into something written as a bizarre collaboration between Tom Clancy and Rod Serling.
Although some of the mid-moments of The Receptionist, where Bock strives a tad too hard to create blandness and point up the ordinariness of office life, could even put Karen Walker to sleep with the remainder of a gram of coke still burning a hole in the bottom of her Prada bag, at the worldclass directorial hands of the evidEnce Room’s unstoppable theatrical guru Bart DeLorenzo, the play comes gloriously to life.
Of course, one has to wonder how much of the ingenious minutia of Beverly’s oddly fascinating daily routine came from the fertile imagination of DeLorenzo and how much originated in the mind of his remarkable leading actress, who so channels the woman that Mullally worried before opening night that everyone who ever watched Will & Grace would think this is how she looks and moves now that the magic of television isn’t a key factor in her performance.
Mullally is simply miraculous here, creaky as she swivels in her standard office deskchair and infrequently shuffles with difficulty from the confines of her alcove to move about the room, smoothing out her tight 1982-style frosted helmet hair, adjusting her slightly gaudy suits designed by master costuming illusionist Ann Closs-Farley, and straightening her oversized glasses pushed down the bridge of her nose.
Megan Mullally gives more than a great performance as the pivotal title character in The Receptionist: she brings everyone’s own cantankerous old Aunt Jane back to life—and the result is nothing short of mesmerizing.
The evidEnce Room and Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s co-production of The Receptionist plays through Sept. 20 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Bl., West Los Angeles; for tickets, call 310.477.2055.