December 29, 2007

A Brief Encounter with "The Receptionist"

There are so many holiday-themed shows running between Thanksgiving and New Years that you wouldn't think a play centered around a chubby middle-aged woman who answers telephones for a living would be the choice for a multi-generational family outing during Christmas week. Yet sitting behind me at the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Receptionist were a grandmother and her three grandkids, who looked to be between the ages of 12 and 19. And, for the most part, they also looked to be having a pretty good time.

Perhaps they were primed for the show by its seeming similarity to "The Office," the NBC sitcom about an obnoxious boss and the poor saps who work for him. Or maybe they were simply amused, as I was, by Jayne Houdyshell's pitch-perfect performance as the good-natured busybody familiar to every workplace. And I suspect that the now-notorious twist in the play may have appealed to the sense of the macabre that, if the current popularity of horror movies is any indication, seems to excite lots of young people these days. "I wasn't so sure about this at the start," I overheard the grandson say during the curtain call. "But then things started getting interesting."
Finally, I imagine that the play's running time may also have played a part in their enjoyment. The Receptionist runs just 70 intermission-less minutes.

I'm a big fan of one-act plays. Unlike the opera, where you get a comfortable 30 minutes or so of intermission, the 10 to 15 minute breaks during plays always strike me as stingy and a waste of time and effort. By the time you shove your way into the lobby, it's time to shove your way back to your seat. Which is why I rarely leave mine. I also like the fact that a short performance gets you out at a decent hour so that you can go somewhere afterwards and linger over dinner talking about the show or, if you choose, find a cab home easily since the other shows haven't yet let out. But 70 minutes kind of startled me.

The brevity of The Receptionist seemed to take the rest of the audience by surprise too. When the stage lights went out, signaling the end of the show, it took a few seconds for the applause to start and even then it was tepid, although people had laughed and, in some cases even gasped, out loud during the performance. I think we all felt cheated.

Going to the theater obviously isn't like renting a car or seeing a shrink, you don’t pay for it by the hour. But the regular ticket price for The Receptionist, which ends its run this weekend, is $75, and that works out to more than a dollar a minute. I don't bear any resentment towards Houydshell and her co-stars—Josh Charles, Robert Foxworth and Kendra Kassebaum—who were all terrific. Or towards playwright Adam Bock, whose play deftly captures these distressing times; or director Joe Mantello, who paced the work perfectly; or sound designer Darron L. West, who created just the right undercurrent of menace.
But shouldn't someone at MTC have made the call that asking folks to pay more than a buck a minute for a performance is, well, distressing.

Luckily, other theater companies and producers are looking for ways to make theater more affordable for more people. Playwrights Horizons has a number of programs including Hot Tix, which sells $20 tickets to people who can prove they’re 30 or under; and LIVEforFIVE, an online lottery that offers $5 tickets for first preview performances (click here to see all of its discount programs). And earlier this month, the producers of August: Osage County, The Homecoming, and November announced a package deal to see all three for $199 (click here for more details on that offer).

I don't know how often the young people who sat behind me at
The Receptionist go to the theater. But I think seeing it may have persuaded them that a live show can be just as enthralling as a movie at the Cineplex. Alas, it may also have made them think that going to the theater is something that you can only afford to do when an indulgent, well-heeled grandmother takes you.


Esther said...

I'd never seen Jayne Houdyshell before, and I thought she was great in "The Receptionist." Just looking at that picture makes me laugh!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I have to say I agree with you on this.

Happy New Year!