A middle-aged man in a business suit sits alone on the edge of a blackened stage, illuminated by a sole spot, and quietly describes the humane way to kill a fish which has been wounded by the fisherman’s hook in such a way that it cannot be thrown back into the water to carry on its submarine life. He then comments somewhat ambiguously, albeit ominously, about “people who don’t like what we do to people over there.”

Were it not for the monolog which opens The Receptionist, audiences would have no clue that Adam Bock’s one-act comedy had a dark bone in it.  Most of what ensues over the play’s first half-hour or so comes across more or less like an extended Saturday Night Live skit, though admittedly a particularly intelligent and cleverly written one starring one of TV’s most worshipped divas. But there is that opening monolog clueing us in that what we initially see is not going to be what we ultimately get.

At first, though, we are in scenic designer Chris Covics’ deliberately bland, windowless office, Muzak playing ever so softly in the background over a faintly disconcerting hum, courtesy of sound designer John Zalewski. Seated behind the reception desk is Beverly Williams, queen bee of the Northeast Office, a pant-suited oldish woman with a short bouffant do, who alternates between giving over-the-phone dating advice to friend Cheryl Lynn, switching over to other lines to chat with various female friends, and arguing with callers unwilling to leave a voice mail for her boss, Mr. Raymond.

If not for the star’s over-the-title billing, we’d probably not recognize Beverly as Megan Mullally, or at least not as the Megan Mullally who won a pair of Emmys for her portrayal of Will And Grace’s Karen Walker, once described by Grace as “a spoiled, shrill, gold-digging socialite who would sooner chew off her own foot than do an honest day’s work.” From her teased, frosted bob to her prim eyeglasses to her nasal East Coast voice to her svelte petite figure to her arthritic shuffle, Mullally’s Beverly is a whole new creation, and one likely to win over even fans heretofore unwilling to accept the actress as anything other than Karen.

Beverly’s morning is soon brightened by the arrival of lovely blonde Lorraine Taylor (The Bold And The Beautiful’s three-time Emmy-winning Jennifer Finnigan), one of Beverly’s coworkers and no stranger to man troubles. Beverly offers Lorraine advice (she should read “Help! I’m In Love With A Narcissist!”) and comfort food (Skittles), then goes on to order a birthday cake for Mr. Raymond while Lorraine busies herself with some filing.

An unexpected visitor soon arrives from Central Office—tall, movie-star handsome Marcus Dart (Chris L. McKenna, smashing in the Pasadena Playhouse’s recent Mauritius). Though Beverly hasn’t met Mr. Dart before, she informs him that she talks with his receptionist all the time. “She has the cutest little voice,” comments Beverly. Dart’s arrival has prompted Lorraine to switch from gym shoes to sexy high heels and to offer him her help. “I work with Mr. Raymond,” she tells him, and not long after that, even goes so far as to wink at him. “You winked,” observes Dart. “Sometimes I like to joke,” explains Lorraine. “She’s the office joker,” adds Beverly dryly.

Not long after, Mr. Raymond (Jeff Perry) arrives with what seems at first to be the kind of everyday complaint one might expect from a boss. “I had an unfortunate day yesterday,” he states, and then goes on to explain why, his matter-of-fact tone of voice belying the appalling nature of his grievance.  What began as an longer-than-usual SNL sketch has suddenly entered Twilight Zone territory, and a talk-provoking look at the banality of evil in a (post-)Bush-Cheney world.

A live stage appearance by a TV star of Mullally’s magnitude is big L.A. theater news, but Mullally has numerous Broadway and local stage credits to her name, including several with The Evidence Room.  (The West Coast Premiere of The Receptionist is a co-production of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and the Evidence Room, and its stellar director is Evidence Room Artistic Director Bart DeLorenzo.)  Watching Mullally at work here is to see a consummate comedic pro, her dry delivery and razor-sharp timing making the most of every one of Bock’s laugh lines.  It helps that she’s given some terrific material to work with.  For example, Beverly knows every pen in her office by name, and can’t seem to fathom how people can keep walking away with them, especially the highlighters.  Beverly’s hobby is collecting tea cups, but when someone inquires if that might include coffee mugs, Beverly’s shocked reply is a simple but blunt “How awful!” Bock’s script offers Mullally much more than just a chance to be funny, however, and in The Receptionist’s last ten minutes or so, the star gets to show off dramatic chops worthy of the best Meryl Streep can offer.

Finnigan makes a great comedic foil for Mullally’s Beverly, proving that an actress can be blonde, beautiful—and funny as all get-out. McKenna, raved about here for his magnetic work in Mauritius, is once again a standout, his leading man good looks fooling us. Finally, in the role of a man who suddenly, inexplicably “stopped following protocol,” Perry gives an excellent, understated performance, as might be expected from the co-founder of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

In addition to Covics’ set and Zalewski’s sound design (both winners), there’s also the first-rate work of costume designer Ann Closs-Farley, whose clothing choices for each character perfectly define the personas they wish to present to the world. Christopher Kuhl’s lighting design is equally fine.

Mullally’s appearance in a 99-seat theater is sure to guarantee full houses throughout The Receptionist’s run. What audiences will be getting as a bonus is a smart, funny, highly original piece of writing, beautifully directed and performed, and a stunner of a final fadeout. 

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 22, 2009
                                                                                   Photos: Enci

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