Brian Jacobson

“The Receptionist” is perplexing and political

By - Sep 26th, 2009 12:07 am
Mark Bucher, Sonia Rosenthal, Larry Birkett, Carol Zippel in a production photo, courtesy Windfall Theatre.

Mark Bucher, Sonia Rosenthal, Larry Birkett and Carol Zippel in the production. Photo, courtesy Windfall Theatre.

Sometimes, you don’t get what you pay for. In Adam Bock’s play The Receptionist, performed here by an acting foursome from Milwaukee’s Windfall Theatre, the program promised a hijinks comedy that combines parts of The Office with a little of The Sopranos.

But although it starts off in a familiar manner, without warning it veers down a path that gets vaguely dangerous and overtly political.

The setting is the “Northeast Office” in some unnamed city. It’s small with only the eponymous receptionist (Carol Zippel) and two manager types (Sonia Rosenthal and Mark Bucher) who inhabit opposing sides of the room. The play is staged at the receptionist lobby, where a stranger from the company’s “Central Office” (Larry Birkett) stops by. The space is filled with everyday office accoutrements: a fought-over pen supply, magazines, coffee mugs, a computer set to solitaire and so on.

The first act revolves around the women’s love lives, family issues and a fine bakery at the corner store. But it’s somewhere in the second part (the play is essentially a 75-minute, one-act show with scene changes) that things get very weird. Up to this point, everything is a comedy of histrionic proportions with each character acting out a particular disorder or dysfunction. Zippel plays receptionist Beverly with a manic fervency. Rosenthal plays Lorraine as flirty and deluded. Bucher, as the boss, retains a level of clinical depression that begs for medication. Birkett, as mystery man Martin Dart, is scripted as narcissistically handsome so that Lorraine makes a play for him despite his marital status. Trouble is, Birkett is average and older, so the imagination has to stretch.

But then there’s a CIA or NSA  connection thrown into the mix, which is kind of a spoiler but important to report. Normal office life is fronting two interrogators who root out suspected spies. It’s a novel twist but lacks development.

Yet, the play has many high points of corporate comedy, scary and uncomfortable interactions and one unfortunate cake moment. The touch of letting receptionist Beverly complete her daily routine under duress is nice, and the piped-in Muzak between scenes is appropriately disturbing.

The point of live theater is not just to entertain but also to engage the audience, sometimes in an uncomfortable manner. The Receptionist scores on all points. The problem with this unfortunate ‘cake’ is that it’s a lot of frosting but not much on the inside.

The Receptionist runs weekends now through Oct. 10, with a pay-what-you-can special Oct. 5 and added Oct. 8 showing. All performances start at 8 p.m. in the Village Arts Church, located at 130 E. Juneau Ave. in downtown Milwaukee. You can get tickets by calling 414-332-3963 or find details by visiting the Windfall Theatre’s blog.

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