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Manbites Dog Theater persists in its mission to bring recent plays to the stage — no warmed-over Broadway entertainments here — with Adam Bock’s meticulously observed and creepily conceived script concerning “homeland” insecurity. (Can we quit using this term now, and quiet its fascistic echoes?) Under Jeff Storer’s masterly direction, and in the hands of four of the Triangle’s most talented actors, The Receptionist turns on a pinhead from office comedy to national nightmare.
Storer’s directorial style is well-suited to this script, the success of which requires that we perceive the stage world as contiguous with our own. With Storer, you get to the realm of symbols or metaphors or overarching concepts through the small stories of very recognizable humans. He doesn’t go in for loud or showy, or for the theatrical self-awareness that keeps you alert to the play as an artwork. Instead, his style is to filter through your skin and slip off your emotional armor before you know he’s there; and he is very good at it. The sudden turn toward darkness in this script is rather Hitchcockian, and Storer makes the most of it with the naturalism of his characters. We can’t disbelieve the implied horror of what happens down at Central Office, because we have been brought to fully believe in the characters. By the end of the play, we find ourselves impaled on the horns of their dilemma, with hair bristling on our necks as we freeze in place, while the “take flight!” alarm screams in our brains.
Storer couldn’t achieve what he does without the extraordinary abilities of all four actors. From Carl Martin’s opening scene — a sort of prologue that hints at what’s to come — to Marcia Edmundson’s trembling lip in the final moment, they are all pitch-perfect in their roles. Martin plays the nice boss, Mr. Raymond, a big care-worn, rumpled guy in suspenders and a military haircut; and that opening speech was so naturally conversational that I believed in his goodness in a heartbeat. He is clearly liked and respected by his coworker Lorraine Taylor and the receptionist, Beverly Wilkins, played by Katja Hill and Marcia Edmundson, respectively. Both of these women are fearless actors who effortlessly marshal details of inflection, expression, and body language to create fully three-dimensional characters. In this preview performance, there was not one brittle or false moment. Playwright Adam Bock’s language, with its everyday qualities, was completely their own.
What they do there at the Northeast Office is not exactly clear — at first the office just seems like a normal business or government setting where women pass on their news, lots of phone calls go to voicemail, birthday cards are signed, pastries are eaten, and not much work is done. But with the arrival of an unscheduled visitor, Martin Dart, the atmosphere changes. Dart is played by the versatile Derrick Ivey, fresh from his dual roles in Act a Lady. Ivey is a bit like Robert Duvall, a kind of shapeshifter. You see him and then you check your program … could that be him, the same guy who just two months ago had rounded shoulders under a dweeby cardigan? Here he’s all angles and trouser creases, upright as a general. Beautifully dressed, his menace wafts gently around him like a cologne. He plays a few things for laughs; but he never overplays, so his character is truly threatening. Without giving away the plot, I think I can say that Martin Dart represents the devil in the details of the U.S. government of recent years.
Derrick Ivey also designed the show’s costumes and its excellent set, which is enhanced with Chuck Catotti’s lighting and Marc Maximov’s sound design. Altogether, this is a fine production, and another high point in Manbites Dog Theater’s 22 years of bold theater.
The Receptionist continues through February. See our theatre calendar for details.