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Review: ‘The Receptionist’ weakened by mixing genres

Caren Graham plays the title character in “The Receptionist” being staged by Interplayers in Spokane. . (Jesse Tinsley)
Caren Graham plays the title character in “The Receptionist” being staged by Interplayers in Spokane. . (Jesse Tinsley)

Adam Bock’s 2007 play “The Receptionist” is an odd hybrid. It’s partly a comedy and partly a provocative moral statement.

Mostly, however, it’s a tough sell.

This four-person Interplayers cast tries hard to sell “The Receptionist,” but it’s an uphill battle. The first half of the evening is played as a workplace comedy, and an uncomfortable one. The second half of the evening turns into a chilling morality play about the banality of evil. Director Maria Caprile makes that point well and repeatedly, but Bock’s script never develops the theme.

In one sense, “The Receptionist” comes off as a 90-minute technical acting challenge. Bock’s characters speak in the cadences of extreme realism. A typical line of dialogue might be on the lines of, “I know, I …” which is then interrupted by somebody saying, “Yes, that’s …,” which is then interrupted again.

It truly is the way people talk. Try transcribing a conversation and you’ll be shocked at how stilted it is. Yet stilted can be incoherent and undramatic. It can also be un-comedic.

It’s hard to get into a comedy rhythm when you’re barely allowed to finish a thought or a sentence, much less deliver an actual punch line. Fortunately, Caren Graham, who plays the receptionist, has an awe-inspiring ability to transcend this problem. She plays Beverly, a sweet, motherly looking woman with a headset, presiding at the middle of a chevron-shaped reception desk. One second, she’s barking in shocked disapproval of a co-worker’s choice in men – “But he’s married!” – the next moment she is cooing into her headset, “Nooortheast Office.”

Graham holds the entire show together and very nearly pulls off the difficult feat of making Bock’s play work. The play founders with the other, almost entirely underdeveloped, characters.

The willowy red-haired Caryn Hoaglund-Trevett plays Lorraine, who appears at first to be the world’s ditziest office worker. She misses the bus every morning and is as emotionally mature as a middle-schooler. When the mysterious and handsome Martin (Jorge Paniagua) from the Central Office shows up in the reception area, Lorraine suddenly turns into the very caricature of a winking, slinking flirt.

Picture Carol Burnett doing a parody of a vamp. I can only surmise that Hoaglund-Trevett and director Caprile decided to abandon all subtlety in an attempt to inject some broad comedy into a stilted script.

I certainly don’t blame them for trying, but the laughter on opening night was not exactly the kind actors crave. It was nervous, awkward laughter, as opposed to explosive and heartfelt.

And then comes the dramatic twist, ushered in by an almost throwaway line delivered by the Northeast Office boss, Mr. Raymond (Reed McColm). I won’t give it away, except to say that it makes chillingly clear what constitutes the “business” of the Northeast Office.

The whole show skids 180 degrees. The attempts at comedy are abandoned and instead the show becomes a “Twilight Zone” cautionary tale about how the zealous defense of liberty can slide into tyranny.

This, too, is a hard sell for the cast. While we certainly understand Bock’s point, he gives us only one fully developed character, Beverly, to care about. We are left to contemplate the point set up by the first half of the play – that evil can wear a mundane appearance.

As points go, that’s a little too mundane to carry an entire play.