PORTLAND CENTER STAGE'S production of Adam Bock's The Receptionist has an unusual history: The script was first produced in Portland in 2008 by CoHo Productions. After that show's successful run, Portland Center Stage—who previously produced Bock's The Thugs—picked it up, keeping the same director (PCS Associate Artistic Director Rose Riordan), and several of the same actors (including Sharonlee McLean, who snagged a Drammy for her performance the first time around).
Reproducing the show was in many ways a safe bet by PCS—after all, Portland audiences have already vetted the script and direction. But it's hard to find fault with a safe decision when it results in a wider audience getting to see a show like this one.
Much of Bock's script focuses intently on the minutiae of office life: The set foregrounds a receptionist's desk, where Beverly (Sharonlee McClean) mans the front lines of the office, answering phones, hoarding pens, and listening patiently to the romantic misadventures of her unstable party-girl coworker Lorraine (Laura Faye Smith). A good 45 minutes of the production dwells here, amid ringing phones and coffee breaks. The women's boss, Mr. Raymond (Robert M. Thomas), is out of the office, and a man from the "Central Office" waits for him to return, patiently enduring Lorraine's unsubtle attempts at seduction.
Bock's portrayal of office life is dead-on, and McClean is utterly believable as the competent, good-naturedly put-upon receptionist. It's only when Mr. Raymond returns to the office, though, that the real power of Bock's script is revealed.
This is not a show that relies on shock value, but it would do a disservice to give away too much of the surprising second half. Suffice to say that Bock takes a strong moral stance on "just following orders" complicity in contemporary warfare. By addressing the issue obliquely, instead of head-on, Bock generates a profoundly effective metaphor—one driven home by a suddenly tremulous McClean in the play's final moments.
It's a great show, easily the best thing I've seen at PCS this year—although if you saw the CoHo's production, be warned that, at least according to my theater date, who saw both shows, the two productions are virtually identical. If you missed it at the CoHo, though, don't let it pass you by again.