Bush-Era Angst

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Of the many things George W. Bush said that came back to haunt him, one quip perhaps best describes what would become known as the Bush II Era: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," he said about working with Congress, "just so long as I'm the dictator."

The strange mixture of self-importance and paranoia that swept through America during the Second Bush Empire is succinctly captured in Adam Bock's play The Receptionist. A short, breezy look at mundane, office life that morphs into a dark glimpse of torture and rendition, The Receptionist is not a black comedy—it's a black ops comedy.

The Northeast Office of a bland, unnamed American business is where all of the action in this 80-minute play takes place. At the center of this office is the receptionist, Beverly, who appears to be in control of everything—from dealing with the boss's wife to guarding the office supplies. "That three-hole punch would just walk right out of here if I didn't have eyes like a hawk," she warns an employee from another office, in one of the play's lines that perfectly captures the tiny turf battles that constitute big deals in the arena of office politics.

receptionist.jpgAt the World Premiere of The Receptionist back in 2007, Beverly was performed by Jane Houdyshell—a first-rate actress who played the role in the blustery, grand manner of Emil Jannings in the silent classic, The Last Laugh. Here in the Los Angeles premiere at the Odyssey Theater, Beverly is played by Megan Mullally. Famous for her work on the television comedy, Will & Grace, Mullally is no stranger to the stage. She was excellent in a local production of Charles Mee's Berlin Circle many years ago and stole almost every scene she was in of Mel Brooks' recent Broadway version of Young Frankenstein.

Mullally portrays the receptionist in a very different manner than Houdyshell or her own brash Broadway turns. Adopting a hunched posture, aging herself by decades, Mullally's Beverly looks and sounds like her go-getter character Rosemary from How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying, 40 years after she fled New York to run a small town antique shop. Despite her diminutive presence, Mullally's Beverly is just as imperious, but in a quieter, passive aggressive way.

With the help of director Bart DeLorenzo, this character and the details of office minutia are rendered vividly: from the cutesy calendars and stuffed animals that clutter Beverly's desk, to the way she clucks at latecomers, organizes pencils or pours Skittles into a glass jar. It's a top-notch portrait — the type of small theater production Los Angeles needs more of: a fine actor, a seasoned director and a recent and relevant American play. My only quibble is that the play's turn from Seinfeld-esque to Pinter-esque is less powerful than I remember. Mullally seems just a victim of the office's totalitarian power structure, whereas Houdyshell also revealed her complicity in the arrangement. This gave Bock's gotcha ending a little extra jolt, as The Receptionist is a jaunty reminder that dictatorships are indeed easy — until you're not the dictator anymore.

amer_idiot4.jpgAnother product of the Bush years to retain its relevance in the Obama age is Green Day's rock opera American Idiot. Released as an album in 2004, American Idiot has been staged at Berkeley Repertory Theater by Michael Mayer of Spring Awakening fame. Green Day's hazy rock anthems speak of apathy and Iraq — they don't sound profound individually; but as a compilation, they paint an impressionistic portrait of disillusioned youth that calls to mind the landmark musical Hair. Top-shelf production values and a vibrant cast make it worth catching before a seemingly inevitable move to Broadway.

American Idiot runs through November 1 at BRT; The Odyssey's revival of The Receptionist has been extended through November 21.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

The Receptionist images: Enci
American Idiot image: mellopix.com © Berkeley Repertory Theatre