Jayne Houdyshell and Josh Charles in The Receptionist
(© Joan Marcus)
Jayne Houdyshell and Josh Charles in The Receptionist
(© Joan Marcus)
There are some plays that call for the warning phrase "spoilers ahead" to be placed near the top of a review. One is Adam Bock's The Receptionist, which the Manhattan Theatre Club is giving a neat and tidy 80-minute production. The mere plot outline coupled with the barest obligatory discussion of what Bock is after with his contemporary allegory will give away too much of the amusement -- and its chilling underpinnings.

In the swift-as-greased-lightning sketch-like piece, the always flawless Jayne Houdyshell plays Beverly Wilkins, one of those office types who seems to believe she's really at the core of all corporate action. Sitting contentedly in a circular unit that David Korins has designed to resemble command central, the plump and friendly actress has a long introductory sequence from which she derives no end of hilarity simply by fielding a series of phone calls while dealing shrewdly with romance-befuddled co-worker Lorraine Taylor (Kendra Kassebaum).

Beverly then takes umbrage when Mr. Dart (Josh Charles) arrives unannounced from the home office. Mr. Dart has dropped by to see delayed office head, Mr. Raymond (Robert Foxworthy). While waiting on the premises, he's hardly reluctant to throw himself winkingly into a flirtation with the nubile, agreeable Lorraine. But soon enough, the activities carried out at Beverly's workplace are revealed and become a cause for humanitarian concern.

Incidentally, before Beverly starts with the telephone gabbery and the computer-screen cleaning, Mr. Raymond has already made an introductory appearance alongside a camera on a tripod. In Brian MacDevitt's tenebrous lighting, he jaws about his objections to rabbit-hunting in contrast to his love of fly-fishing. He yammers for some minutes about tossing fish back in the water once they've been unhooked. For much of Bock's opus, Mr. Raymond's opening monologue seems out of left field. Its place in the compact scheme of things only comes into focus when the real reason for Mr. Dart's trip to this northeast office is revealed. His presence proceeds to alter the standard tedium of what has appeared to be a working environment like millions of others.

Despite the possibility of extending the plot-turn spoilage, it's necessary to report that Bock -- whose Swimming in the Shallows man-with-shark romance impressed many a few seasons back -- does have something cogent to put forth. At a time when American policies regarding, say, torture are perhaps being routinely fudged by the governing administration and political parties are at loggerheads, Bock is thinking about the extent to which moral responsibility should be shared by those far removed from the so-called deciders. Bock wants to know who gets called to account. Can the littlest cog in the societal wheel claim immunity? These are questions most people think about at least fleetingly, frequently dodging the unpleasant answers. In The Receptionist, Bock isn't disposed to allow any wriggling out.

There's no gainsaying that by the time the denouement is reached and intensified by Korins' shifting walls and file stacks and Darron L. West's sound design, Bock's communique is effective. But the playwright is also glib. He makes his uncompromising statement in a piece that falls somewhere between Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" and a Twilight Zone episode -- with a soupcon of Franz Kafka thrown in. Some audiences will be content with that brand of message-inclined entertainment; others may feel that either they've been led manipulatively down a garden path to an unexpectedly thorny rose bush or they've been slightly short-changed.

There's no short-changing in the direction that Joe Mantello provides with the kind of deceptive lightness that Bock requires. The cast of four also impresses. In a role that brings to mind Roseanne Barr on a good day, Houdyshell can elicit laughs with the way she uses a letter-opener to go at an envelope. She has more stage business to contend with than Steve Jobs has iPhones, and she carries it out with a born comic actor's flair. Circulating around her, bouncy and brazen Kendra Kassebaum, smooth-talking Josh Charles, and confiding Robert Foxworthy render yeoman service.