Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is Cygnet’s The Receptionist Subversive?


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

FROM: Mark Gabrish Conlan, Theatre Monitor

TO: The Central Office

SUBJ.: Theatrical presentation, “The Receptionist,” at Cygnet Theatre, San Diego

It is my duty to report on a potentially subversive theatre presentation scheduled to play through the entire month of August at the Cygnet Theatre’s Rolando space, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, suite N, at the eastern end of San Diego near the College area. The play is called The Receptionist and was written by Adam Bock. Cygnet’s production is the play’s West Coast premiere and was directed by the company’s founder and artistic director, Sean Murray. Rather than wait for the official August 1 opening and request review tickets, I disguised myself as an ordinary playgoer and monitored the play’s second preview performance on Friday, July 25. This memo contains my observations and recommendations for our agency’s response to this production.

Bock’s strategy in his script is to lure audiences to the theatre expecting to see an innocuous, lightweight comedy set in a modern office, then as the play progresses to sneak in more and more potentially dangerous material. When one enters the theatre, one’s first sight is an extraordinarily realistic set for a reception desk at a high-class office space, expertly designed by Sean Fanning. In line with the theatre company’s name, which means “baby swan,” swan motifs abound in the set design, from the logo of the enterprise represented to the multiple toy swans and other birds supplied by properties designer Bonnie L. Durben to adorn the set and represent the tastes of the title character, receptionist Beverly Wilkins (Melinda Gilb).

However, before the play begins the entire set revolves to reveal a blank wall on the other side, where Ms. Wilkins’ supervisor, Edward Raymond (Dale Morris), is delivering a monologue about his love for fly fishing and his arguments with his wife over the current U.S. military operation in Iraq. Then the set revolves again and we see Ms. Gilb as Ms. Wilkins, gossiping on the office phone with a female friend and fielding phone calls for Mr. Raymond and another office staff member, Lorraine Taylor (Jo Anne Glover). Ms. Taylor arrives for work late, and soon enough an attractive young man, ostensibly from this office, named Martin Dart (Sean Cox), enters the reception area and announces his intention to wait for Mr. Raymond to arrive.

For the first half of this play — presented in a single act of about 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission — the principal dramatic issue is Ms. Taylor’s love life. She has been seeing a man named Glenn (not shown on stage as a character) whom Ms. Wilkins has denounced as a narcissist, a personality trait that fortunately is no concern of this agency. However, this does not stop her from commencing a flirtation with Mr. Dart — to which Mr. Dart responds even though playwright Bock has already established that he is married and the father of a four-year-old boy. (Mr. Cox can be seen wearing a wedding ring on the appropriate finger to establish this aspect of Mr. Dart’s character.) Ms. Wilkins attempts to warn Ms. Taylor about the potential consequences of dating a married man — as she had previously done with her girlfriend, also not seen as an actual on-stage character.

Then The Receptionist veers subtly but unmistakably from relatively harmless, innocuous sexual farce to material with a very real danger of compromising this agency and its protocols. While it would be inappropriate to risk accidental disclosure of classified information by going into too many specifics in this memo, suffice it to say that Mr. Bock’s writing treads on the thin edge of subversion by daring to suggest that this agency’s protocols may sometimes err on the side of rigor; and that compassion, justice and a sense of fair play might actually be reasonable values to apply in our struggle against a ruthless, implacable enemy who shows no signs of respecting any but the toughest and most uncompromising approaches to investigation.

The excellence of Cygnet’s production only adds to the subversive potential of Mr. Bock’s material. Director Murray keeps the action constantly flowing and avoids the trap of making the transition from light comedy to serious drama too obvious and glaring. He has also assembled an excellent cast of experienced local actors (all of whom but Ms. Glover are listed as resident artists of his company). Ms. Gilb is perfectly cast as the big-hearted, almost motherly receptionist and Ms. Glover matches her ably as the slacker Lorraine, whose rather airy dismissal of work schedules and obligations may or may not conceal a more sinister purpose.

The men fare equally well, perhaps too well in the case of Mr. Cox, who’s all too effective in making us believe he’d willingly forsake his marriage vows for Ms. Glover’s character. (No one in our office would really behave like that, would we?) Mr. Morris gets little stage time but makes the most of what he has. The actors, especially the women, are remarkably well dressed by costume designer Jeanne Reith, and the lighting by Eric Lotze is mostly routine but achieves some quite effective effects towards the end.

Cygnet Theatre has announced this production as the opening of their 2008-2009 season, and some of the future plays on their schedule also suggest the possibility of subversive content. Among these are a musical by Stephen Sondheim that allegedly glorifies both successful and failed Presidential assassins and two well-known propaganda pieces, A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, which under the guise of sentimental Christmas stories actually dare to suggest that values of compassion, justice and fair play might be applicable even to the business world.

What’s more, at least two of the actors in The Receptionist have suspicious backgrounds from their work elsewhere in San Diego theatre. Dale Morris is the artistic director of Compass Theatre, formerly known as 6th @ Penn, in Hillcrest, which at one point produced a series of plays allegedly dealing with human rights and in the process questioning the propriety of our agency’s use of tort- — excuse me, enhanced interrogation techniques. And Jo Anne Glover is one of the four founders of MOXIE, a local company that proudly and unashamedly proclaims its mission as presenting plays that subvert long-established traditional gender-role norms and actually present women as independent agents entitled to live their own lives and ignore their Biblically ordained subordination to men.

My recommendation for action is that, rather than apprehend the principals behind this production and interrogate them immediately, we encourage people to see their play and report back to us whether they find the message of The Receptionist subversive and threatening to the national security. To do this, they can order tickets online at or by phone at (619) 337-1525. The show’s official opening date is August 1 and performances take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays until the production closes on August 31. Once they’ve seen it, they can e-mail our agency at the special address I have set up for that purpose,, and let us know what they think.

But however you react to this show, it’s clear that these folks at Cygnet Theatre bear watching …