“NORTHEAST OFFICE” Trinity stalwart Janice Duclos seems to the switchboard born.
Ricky Gervais meets Dick Cheney in The Receptionist (at Trinity Repertory Company through January 11). Does that make Adam Bock's unsettling workplace comedy Richard II? Hardly. The short, Pinter-influenced work, seen here in its New England premiere, zeroes in not on the eloquence of kings but on the sometimes veiled, irrepressible mundanity of office chatter — even when it turns out that what the office is up to is nefarious. The play is full of allusions, oblique and otherwise, to recent national paranoia and the Big Brotherish encroachments on our integrity and freedom for which it has provided a convenient inroad. But like a cheerful mask pulled over a monster, the inane, omniscient business of the title character goes on as, in Tony winner Eugene Lee's set design, she mans her bland communications center backed by a bulletin board full of tacked-up Christmas cards and a coffee machine crowned with a Frosty the Snowman fortunately too fake to take the damaging heat.
I have been a fan of the Canadian-born, Paula Vogel–trained Bock since Coyote Theatre premiered his Swimming in the Shallows, in which the love object is a steadily lap-executing shark, almost nine years ago. Since then, he's become a fixture Off Broadway, where The Receptionist premiered in 2007, following by a year its Obie-winning companion piece, The Thugs (recently produced by Boston's Apollinaire Theatre Company). Bock's brief, edgy pieces tend to be sketchy, if not slight, with roughly half of The Receptionist emerging like a sharply written episode of a workplace-set sit-com before the harried boss, Mr. Raymond, breezes in with a single line that quite changes the tone of things.
Following a cryptic prologue, we have innocuously whiled away the time listening to sexy, ditzy, slightly frantic co-worker Lorraine Taylor regale bosomy receptionist Beverly Wilkins with skittering tales of romantic crises. That's when the latter was not juggling the buttons that allow her to announce "Northeast Office" to multiple callers while at the same time carrying on a string of sage personal conversations of her own. True, there had been the unsolicited appearance of Mr. Dart from the Central Office, he hugging his dossier while throwing awkward small talk into the mix. But all had seemed regulation around-the-water-cooler intercourse. Now, like Otis Redding suddenly slammed up against Kafka or Václav Havel, we're sittin' by the banks of Guantánamo Bay.
Artistic director Curt Columbus is at the helm of the airy, drolly detailed Trinity Rep production, its reception desk manned by well-cast company stalwart Janice Duclos (for whom the role may have been written, Bock having served a stint as a TRC public-relations assistant). Her face a map of solicitous disapproval, her sweater a feast of poinsettias, Duclos seems to the switchboard born, carrying on her duties with smug, matronly responsibility. She makes her brisk character generous and helpful, if a bit of a busybody. And whether admonishing a friend embarked on a romantic misadventure or frosting her husband for spending the phone-bill stash on a collectible teacup, Duclos's Beverly is a master of the one-sided conversation, her expressions conveying everything you need to know of what's being extruded into the other end of the phone wire. She brings the same casual, businesslike attentiveness to abandoning what she perceives to be a sinking human ship.
As agitated romantic Lorraine, her tailored suits a bit tight and her toned body parts well aimed at the casual visitor, Angela Brazil proves skilled at diverting her character's understandable nervousness and keeping her cut-bait savvy under wraps. Timothy John Smith deftly cloaks Mr. Dart's menace in amiable, even kindly professionalism. And Timothy Crowe, as Mr. Raymond, flies what might be a red flag of a prologue with chatty, effortless ease and later turns on a dime from avuncular authority to stoic terror. It does, however, take The Receptionist an awfully long time to stop gabbing and buzz in its more ominous subject matter.