Not just another day at the office

Jobs and WorkplaceArts and CultureStephen Merchant

On the stage of the Steep Theatre, designer Stephen Harold Carmody has re-created an everyday office: you see rows of files, a nice reception desk, inspirational art on the walls celebrating team work, dedication and other valuable corporate skills. But if you arrive at your theater seat early and find yourself staring at this design, you won't easily discern what this office actually does.

It remains that way for the first half of Adam Bock's 75-minute play "The Receptionist." Therein we watch the titular phone-answering employee, played by the chirpy Cheryl Roy, interact with a couple of workers, played by Peter Esposito and Caroline Neff, and find out if she can put plenty of people into other people's voice mails, while still keeping a little time to scold a fellow worker for walking off with all the good pens. There are no further clues when she picks up the phone — the standard greeting is "North East Office."

Plenty of workplaces — perchance the one you toil in yourself — don't actually do much, of course. And ever since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant came up with the absurdist mockumentary "The Office," much fun has been had at the expense of the petty rivalries and battles involving power, status and the availability and cost of office supplies. And so for a good while, that's what you think you are watching here — a droll series of riffs on mundanity.

That turns out mostly to be a long tease — but any description of the other shoe that drops would spoil the show. Suffice here to say that the business of this office is not entirely savory (or sweet) and that the playwright's main point seems to be that certain problematic human actions here in America tend to get integrated into everyday routine, meaning that we too easily forget to challenge what lies beneath.

Bock's play, which was staged at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in 2007 with Jayne Houdyshell in the central role, does not have a great deal to say about what we all should do about that, beyond wagging its authorial finger, but it certainly identifies the problem in a very bracing and striking theatrical manner, well suited to Steep's intimate space and its love of intensity and mystery.

Director Joanie Schultz's production is well-paced and generally effective, even if the lack of space on Carmody's set sometimes makes it tough to buy the moments when private conversations are supposedly not being overheard. The piece walks a fine line of believability and, on occasion, this production lurches too far away from truth.

But most of the time, Roy's character does her thing very deftly and amusingly. Both Neff, whose work is rich, and Esposito, who brings the right note of sadness, are careful to underplay their roles, adding nicely to the general sense of unease coaxed to the fore by the shrewdly generic. And Peter Moore, playing the visitor whose appearance up-ends the stability of this little corporate cesspool, is quite deliciously unmenacing, which makes him aptly creepy as he imposes the will of the central office, whose collective commandments are the nemesis of so many American workers, trying to keep their head down lest someone chop off their fingers.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through May 19

Where: Steep Theatre Company, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Tickets: $22-$25 at 866-811-4111 and steeptheatre.com

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