Beverly Wilkins is a workaday, affably sassy office maven, one of those droll corporate secretaries no self-respecting conglomerate can do without. The problem is that self-respect isn't necessarily a signature trait at this place. Bev greets callers with an incessant “Northeastern office,” and she's forever putting people through to voicemail as personnel tend to matters in the field. She never reveals the business the company's engaged in, although it's clear her boss and his subordinates are up to no good.
In Cygnet Theatre's current West Coast premiere of The Receptionist, playwright Adam Bock lets us figure out that part on our own, and he manages to draw complete characters without letting on too much about the skullduggery (and discreet violence) that drive the office. I think his mechanics suffer a little as a consequence—Beverly's flightiness over the fate of the office pens comes out of nowhere, and one employee's love life has nothing to do with the story, almost as if Bock's trying to kill time before advancing the plot. But such unevenness is short-lived amid excellent performances, which mark The Receptionist as the actor-friendly (and very dark) comedy it is.
The broader story involves executive Edward Raymond (Dale Morris), the brains and brawn behind a firm that exacts corporal punishment on errant clients. He likely becomes a victim himself when Martin Dart (Sean Cox) calls him on a lapse in judgment; even loyalist Beverly comes under scrutiny, completing a cycle of corporate intrigue and intimidation.
There's not much director Sean Murray can do about Bock's odd tangents, chiefly the one about junior assistant Lorraine Taylor (an underused Jo Anne Glover) and her relationship with the unseen Glenn. These kinds of exchanges make good fodder for Beverly (Melinda Gilb), ever the office gossip and legendary Mother Confessor, but they don't always relate to the proceedings (Lorraine jumps ship, for example, and we're never told whether Glenn was the reason, so it's difficult to reconcile him as a character). And Beverly's giddiness over Dart's good looks is funny, but it's too abrupt a departure from the matronly qualities we've come to expect from the ol' gal.
Cox's Dart is the dastardly company mole from Central office who disarms us (and certainly Beverly) with stories about his paste-eating 4-year-old. His quiet exterior shatters on a dime to reveal his vehement allegiance to the firm, and Cox is highly efficient at projecting both those sides. Morris' creepy Mr. Raymond is quite the opposite—Raymond's opening rhapsody on fly-fishing gives us our only look at the folksiness he's truly capable of, and Morris takes it from there, expertly playing Raymond for the one-dimensional monster he can be.
At the center sits Beverly, whose character angles nearly approach the number of office fixtures at her tidy phone station. Gilb is just fine at projecting them all—in her hands, that unrelenting “Northeastern office” speaks volumes about Beverly's ever-changing, hot-and-cold moods and her regard for the other characters. Sean Fanning's set is a good blend of office modern and corporate secrecy, and Jeanne Reith designs costumes the way I wish I could write reviews.
The script could be better, but this production of The Receptionist holds its own against those flaws. Bock obviously has done time in a few office environments, and he's brought us his observations in a forthright and imaginative manner. Murray spearheads some interesting characters from there. This review is based on the performance of Aug. 9. The Receptionist runs through Aug. 24 at Cygnet Theatre's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $30-$34. 619-337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com.