Workplace Comedy Is Tough Sell
    By Peter Marks
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 3, 2009; Page C07

    At first, Studio Theatre's "The Receptionist" appears to belong in the same tower of corporate irony as NBC's "The Office." Set in the bland, Muzak-filled confines of a generically outfitted reception area, Adam Bock's short play starts down the promising road of deadpan workplace satire.

    But while "The Office" manages to remind audiences weekly of the bottomless comic potential in businessman banality, "The Receptionist" inadvertently reveals some of the genre's pitfalls. Intended both to send up office folkways and to creep us out over the nefarious transactions that such a sterile environment might disguise, Bock's play and Studio's production are only marginally successful at either. The evening is neither as funny nor as spooky as it strives to be.

    Bock is a social satirist of eccentric charm, as he demonstrated in his loopy shark-dates-man play "Swimming in the Shallows" last year at Catalyst Theater. In "The Receptionist," he is melding notions cute and sinister, a combination that director Kate Van Burek Davis and her cast cannot, for the most part, bring together harmoniously for Studio's 2ndStage program.

    The observational comedy of Bock's play requires a refined degree of timing that's not consistently achieved here. Although there are funny moments -- especially in the exchanges between Rachel Holt's high-strung office worker Lorraine and Nancy Paris's Beverly, the nosy lady who guards her inventory of pens at the reception desk -- Davis's choppy production exhausts the situation long before the house lights come back up.

    Comedies enshrining workaday tedium, such as the aforementioned "Office" and Mike Judge's cult-classic movie "Office Space," have conditioned us to expect drollery at the sight of any room with a water cooler. That's why we are happy to be absorbed into the uninviting grayness of Hannah J. Crowell's set: the kind of place where no one should ever be forced to spend more than a day.

    Over Beverly's horseshoe-shaped desk hangs the curious company logo, a star and two vertical stripes -- vaguely, perhaps even ominously, patriotic.* "Northeast office!" is the chirpy phone greeting of Beverly, who wears over her blouse a vest embroidered with cardinals resting on tree branches, the kind she might have sewn in adult-education class. (Kudos to costume designer Ana Marie A. Salamat.)*

    For the longest time, we are flies on the wall, witnesses to Beverly's dull office rituals. Meanwhile, Lorraine zips in and out of her office, fretting over her unsatisfying love life while awaiting the arrival of the branch manager, Mr. Raymond (John Brennan). The day's routine is interrupted with the unscheduled surfacing of Mr. Dart (Adam Jonas Segaller), a persistent young man with a crazy, forced smile who has come from the "central office" on an urgent errand.

    What that assignment might be takes "The Receptionist" into the realm of the chilling -- but not as surprisingly as the playwright might imagine.

    Enjoyment of the play depends on an appreciation of Beverly. She's one of those low-on-the-totem-pole workers who by dint of personality and dedication threads herself into the very fabric of the place. While Paris lets you believe in Beverly as de facto ruler of the roost -- especially as she acts out the day's mindless drudgeries -- you're not quite as aware as you want to be of Beverly's utter self-confidence, her pride in her little kingdom. So it's not as devastating as you'd expect when the control of her domain begins to unravel.

    Awkwardness manifests itself in some of the performances. Holt's Lorraine, however, is a swell creation, and ultimately the actress carries off a nifty bit of deception. It's the cleanest sleight-of-hand this slight entertainment allows.

  • Washington Post Review--"All That I Will Ever Be"-- The Studio Theatre

    An L.A. Story Fueled By Seductive Charm
    By Celia Wren
    Special to The Washington Post
    Thursday, February 21, 2008; Page C02

    How apt that decor resembling a tick-tack-toe board occupies the center of the Studio Theatre's Stage 4 these days. The drama now housed there -- "All That I Will Ever Be," Hollywood writer Alan Ball's slickly packaged fable about sex and identity -- depicts a Los Angeles in which every relationship is a play-to-a-draw power struggle.

    Suitably enough, director Serge Seiden's taut and intermittently racy production for the Studio's 2ndStage takes place on a set whose floor-level panes of opaque white glass, frequently lighted from below, seem to invite a high-stakes game of noughts and crosses.

    The set, designed by Luciana Stecconi, is the centerpiece of an arena-style staging that brings us disturbingly close to the play's mysterious central character, Omar (Carlos Candelario), a hunky, young cellphone salesman of undetermined nationality who moonlights as a prostitute. With his ambiguous sexuality, exotic looks and elusive accent -- is it Egyptian? Iranian? -- Omar is well-positioned to exploit people's erotic obsessions, but his business teeters when he falls for Dwight (Parker Dixon), a sweet, Noam Chomsky-quoting rich boy still reeling from his mother's suicide.

    The play explores this precarious situation and teases out the riddle of Omar's background, in scenes that are elliptical and voyeuristic: hesitant confidences, awkward confrontations, witty bickering, sex and talk about sex (the production features nudity).

    Ball, who created the HBO series "Six Feet Under" and wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for "American Beauty" (he also has previous play credits), whisks in some arch humor on a couple of shopworn themes: the shoddiness of the movie business and the cynicism, ruthlessness and superficiality of the people who run it. "Hot doesn't cut it," sniffs Cynthia (Leayne Freeman), Omar's movie-exec girlfriend. ". . . You have to be perceived as being smart. That's why I wear these glasses that make me look like a Dutch architect, even though I had Lasik surgery over a year ago."

    Seiden's cast deftly navigates this mingling of parody and sincerity. Candelario is, by turns, compellingly dour, seductive, vulnerable and sphinxlike: A sequence in which Omar, killing time, segues from one-handed push-ups (what biceps!) to a campy belly dance, mirror in hand, speaks volumes about the character's carefully maintained defenses. Dixon is appealingly scruffy as the weed-smoking Dwight and, in a smaller role, Richard Mancini draws a poignant picture of Raymond, an elderly businessman who is better traveled -- and less gullible -- than most of Omar's clients. John Kevin Boggs is pleasantly cartoonish as a movie mogul from hell.

    As Cynthia, Freeman is icy and terrifically glamorous, whether in a pantsuit or a gold sheath and matching heels (Ana Marie A. Salamat designed the expressive costumes). Further evoking Tinseltown privilege, Stecconi's set is periodically enriched by an item or two of pitch-perfect furniture, like the restaurant table with its vase for a single orchid, or the hot tub that turns out to be lurking beneath the glass floor. Erik Trester's sound design -- sometimes Middle Eastern music, sometimes smooth jazz -- accentuates the play's concern with culture clash.

    Given the glitzy setting, the sensational story and the savvy, wisecracking dialogue, "All That I Will Ever Be" has the guilty-pleasure quotient of Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue. Ultimately, though, there's something a little glib about how Ball coordinates his motifs, which are tinged with a self-help ethos ("We deserve to be loved, purely and unconditionally," Raymond tells Omar). The challenges of staking out an identity as a sexual being; of being a foreigner in an insular America; and of seeking happiness and fulfillment, generally, in a cutthroat modern world -- these themes lie in tidy alignment, like a winning row of X's on a tick-tack-toe grid.

    All That I Will Ever Be, by Alan Ball. Directed by Serge Seiden; lighting, John Burkland. With McKenzie Bowling, Chris Dinolfo, Danny Gavigan and Steve Nixon. Two hours. Through March 9 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.

  • nytheatre.com review of BRIDE
    Martin Denton · March 17, 2008

    Bride, the new theatre piece by Kevin Augustine and Lone Wolf Tribe, is monumental, epic, and audacious. It is imperfect, as all great art necessarily is; but it takes its audience to a world of singular vision and grotesque beauty—a place surely none of us has ever been before.

    It's a story of creation and of the Creator. If you've been lucky to witness the growth and evolution of Augustine's work since his first piece, Once Vaudeville, about ten years ago, then you know that his prime obsession is more or less the same as Mary Shelley's theme in Frankenstein: what does it mean to create life, as Augustine does in his shows, where he crafts the rest of his cast (puppets) from foam rubber and literally animates them right before our eyes every night? How does a creator cope with the (deep, probably subconscious) knowledge that all of his creations are imperfect, that if he can just make the one perfect Thing then the quest of his Art/Life will be fulfilled?

    Bride is comprised of three sections, or movements, that each explore a part of this framework. The first segment introduces us a to a God who has become overwhelmed by what He's wrought. He's presented as an old man on a throne, working a kind of celestial switchboard, over which are transmitted calls for assistance, presumably from the humans on Earth. (At one point we hear God's "voicemail" play a recorded message to the effect that He has 46,000 unplayed messages.) God's only assistant is a monkey, who helps keep Him focused by referring Him to an enormous book that appears to contain the texts of all the holy scriptures known to man.

    Augustine himself plays this character, referred to in the program as Father, and his performance is extraordinary. Under layers of makeup (designed by Ana Marie Salamat), he looks decades older than he really is, and his entire physicality suggests burdens that long ago became too much to bear. Rob Lok, also remarkably costumed and made up, portrays the ape assistant with eerie grace.

    The first section concludes with a spectacularly theatrical moment which leads the Father to realize that he needs help of some kind—in Augustine's vision, God Himself destroyed the other gods who used to be worshipped by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, et al, and maybe now he regrets this. But His next stratagem, which is pursued in the second part of Bride, is the attempted manufacture of a perfect rendition of His prime creation (e.g., Man). This takes the form (familiar for an Augustine show) of the evolution and training of an unnamed puppet, from baby to insecure but eagerly hopeful adolescent. The puppet, made of foam rubber, is worked, sort-of-bunraku style, by a small chorus of puppeteers; and, occasionally, by Augustine himself. Some of the animation of this creation is breathtaking. At one point, dancer James Graber appears as a manifestation of Father's thoughts, illustrating the kind of perfect grace in movement He wants His new child to achieve—another singularly beautiful moment in the show.

    I don't want to give too much away, but the third and final segment of the piece moves the story toward a resolution that the second section fails to provide. In it, the title character—a 15-foot puppet representing an elemental earth goddess—literally puts herself back together in order to give the Father the help He hasn't understood He needed. Whether her presence represents the need for a Mother figure specifically, or more generally the notion of collaboration in the face of awesome circumstance, (or something else entirely), I will leave for you to decide for yourself.

    Bride is as fragmented as this description suggests—the text lacks the cohesiveness that would tie the piece together in a neat package. But each of the movements in Bride represents a remarkable feat of imagination, and the realization of them—by Augustine and his co-director, Ken Berman, with collaborators Dave Malloy (sound), Shima Ushiba (costumes), Tom Lee (set and video), music (Andrea La Rose; played live by six onstage musicians), and Miranda Hardy (lighting)—is astonishing and artful. Bride explores the deepest yearnings and ponderings of the artist, in the form of undiscovered countries wrought large on stage.