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Theater review: 'The Receptionist' at the Odyssey Theatre

August 19, 2009 |  3:30 pm
The-Receptionist

As Beverly, the title character of Adam Bock’s increasingly nefarious office comedy “The Receptionist,” Megan Mullally is front and center and eager to put you through to voice mail. Need some supplies? Better gauge her mood before asking. And if you're stupid enough to leave your bagel on her desk, you can be sure it’ll promptly end up in her garbage pail, with every last crumb sanitized off her counter.

The play, a co-production between Odyssey Theatre (where it’s playing) and Evidence Room, seems at first like a tediously protracted skit on the time-wasting rituals and inane co-worker banter of corporate life in America. (Chris Covics' sterile workplace set and Ann Closs-Farley's suburban costumes nail the milieu.) The banality, especially acute in the scenes between controlling, busybody Beverly and flirty, always-late Lorraine (Jennifer Finnigan), is put forth with a deadpan that leaves a lingering satiric aftertaste.

But there’s a darker point to this slow-drip dramatization, handled with patience and a fair amount of precision by director Bart DeLorenzo, that goes beyond white-collar mockery. A malevolent twist in the proceedings — which becomes gradually evident after Martin Dart (Chris L. McKenna) arrives from the central office for an urgent meeting with Beverly’s boss, Mr. Raymond (Jeff Perry) — broadens our awareness of the varieties of evil complicity.

Img_0427 Suffice it to say that the play confronts issues that have riled the nation under George W. Bush and continue to bedevil us under Barack Obama. In terms of subject matter, the piece bears comparison with Caryl Churchill’s harrowing theater poem “Far Away,” a sharper written foray into the oblivious citizen heart of geopolitical darkness.

DeLorenzo's actors succeed in not tipping their hands early on, though the minor shortcomings and ethical lapses of their characters are made humorously glaring. Finnigan scores ditsy laughs as the romantically avaricious blond. McKenna's Martin, married with a kid at home, beams a good-guy grin revealing a hint of randy readiness. Mr. Raymond, halting and distracted in his opening monologue, seems embroiled in an all-consuming midlife crisis.

But Bock’s risky dramatic stratagem depends chiefly on an actress who can make Beverly’s blinkered ordinariness completely identifiable. And Mullally, sacrificing the glamorous pop of her two-time Emmy-winning role on “Will & Grace,” subsumes herself wholly into this aging wife and mom with stuffed animals and a raccoon folder on her desk, an unpaid phone bill waiting for her at home and stiff joints that won’t allow her to rush even the simplest of coffee-making tasks.
 
Watching Beverly idly natter to family and friends between business calls as the moral world systematically destructs around her, I couldn’t help wondering what Mullally would do with Winnie from Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Her work here is so perfectly in tune with the rest of the solid ensemble and Bock’s tricky vision that it runs the risk of disappointing her TV fan base, who might prefer her unleashing punch lines in that snarky nasal way that has become her signature. But for those who care about contemporary playwriting with a socially-engaged edge, the performance throws lustrous light on her integrity as an actor-artist while delivering the ambushing horror of Bock's topical parable.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Receptionist," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 20. $25-30. (310) 477-2055 ext. 2. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Photo: Top: Jennifer Finnigan and Megan Mullally. Bottom: Chris L. McKenna and Mullally. Credit: Enci

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