Workin’ 9 to 5 may be a way to make a living, but it sure can be tedious. The day to day routine of answering phones, filing, and interacting with generally benign but annoying co-workers can make the days blur together into a hazy state of boredom until your whole life seems summed up by one of those supposedly funny Facebook posts celebrating the weekend or decrying the horrors of Monday morning. The Empire Theatre Company’s latest production, The Office Plays, explores this mundane world with a darkly comical twist.
The Office Plays, written by Adam Bock, are made up of two short plays called The Receptionist and The Thugs. In both plays, corporate life is shown to be boring and predictable but each also features a dark twist that introduces a malevolence into the workplace that is far darker than gossipy co-workers or the threat of downsizing. Directed by Chris Berg, the plays feature a great ensemble that includes some familiar regulars of the local theatre scene as well as some brand new faces.
The Receptionist is about the daily exploits of Beverly Wilkins (Nicole Quam), the receptionist at the “Northeast Office” who must handle not only the daily duties of managing the phone bank and protecting the stock of office supplies, but also offer advice and opinions on the lives and exploits of her co-worker Lorraine (Amy Lyste), her boss Mr. Raymond (Hyrum Patterson), and a host of other friends and family members who call to interrupt her work. A good chunk of The Receptionist is devoted to this juggling of responsibilities, and though peppered with a good deal of humor, eventually I started to wonder how long I was going to sit here and watch Beverly doing office work. In what could either be masterful timing on the part of playwright Bock or a stroke of impeccable luck, I was just teetering on the edge of boredom when suddenly the play took a very dark turn that made me sit up in my chair, fascinated with how the action was going to progress, wanting to see how this revelation, orchestrated by a visitor from the “Central Office” (Zach Vodden), was going to affect the “business as usual” demeanor of our titular character.
Beverly, the seasoned receptionist and model employee, is unruffled by events and manages to keep her composure until she herself becomes embroiled in the growing problems that plague her office – and hit closer to home than she ever imagined they could. After all, she does her job with competency and efficiency; surely she must be safe from any suspicion of…misconduct?
The second play in the cycle, The Thugs, attempts to establish a similar blend of mundane and malignant, but is unfortunately much less successful. After the genuinely surprising twist of The Receptionist, the audience is already prepared for a dark edge to present itself and Bock does little build up any sort of revelation, instead choosing to pepper the usual office gossip with hints of people dying on various floors of the building, assumed to be accidents or suicides but whispered about among some of the employees as possible murders. Bock also doesn’t do his actors any favors with his style of writing: the show is choppy, with almost no character ever uttering a complete thought without being interrupted by another character who is then interrupted by another, and so on. A bit of this frenetic overlapping can build tension in a scene, but to have almost the entire show done this way is overkill.
Although The Thugs never achieves the same successful balance of humor and tension found in The Receptionist, it still offers up some interesting questions about corporate life. From the moment the lights came up after intermission, I wanted to know who “the thugs” mentioned in the title were. On the one hand, they could represent the invisible threat that seems to be killing people throughout the building (in one scene, the lights temporarily go out and we hear heavy breathing before one of the workers is assaulted in the stairwell), but other thugs emerge in the course of the play as well. Daphne (Victoria Thingelstad) is in an abusive relationship with Joe (Jacob Thomas) who seems to have implicated her in some of his illegal and dangerous activities. Mercedes (Sharon Bures), who seems mentally unstable and more than a little strange, is painted as the office bully, focusing much of her odd behavior on Elaine (Heather Helgeson). Diane (Cheyanne Hewitt) is the floor supervisor and governs with a rigidity and lack of compassion that is often noted by the others when she is out of the room. Mary (Theresa Knox), Bart (Cole Nelson), and Chantal (Mare Thompson) round out the collection of office workers, and everyone on stage mixes together with a sort of guarded familiarity that develops among people who spend a lot of time together but who don’t necessarily like each other very much.
Indeed, both of The Office Plays introduce an extreme form of darkness into the corporate world in an attempt to highlight the darkness that is already there. The mid-20th century vision of the business world, where you put in your time and are rewarded with a gold watch and a pension, is a relic of the past. Today’s business world is a place where people do just disappear; that they are victims of layoffs and “restructuring” instead of homicide does not diminish the disposable feeling that many of today’s workers have. Beverly lectures Lorraine on the importance of loyalty, but she is as outdated as the pension and her loyalty does nothing to protect her from the dangers of the central office. When several people don’t show up to work the day after Elaine is assaulted, Diane brusquely reminds the other employees that Mr. Halpert will just send them new temps and orders them back to work. The business world is one of uncertainty, and one that increasingly is losing its touch with basic human kindnesses. Perhaps The Office Plays serve as a warning of what we become when we are complicit in a system that uses and discards people without compassion or even an explanation.
The Office Plays run Wednesday through Saturday, April 17 – 20, at the Empire Theatre. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students. Show time is 7:30 pm.
Tags: Adam Bock, Amy Lyste, Cheyanne Hewitt, Chris Berg, Cole Nelson, corporate comedy, dark comedy, downsizing, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre Company, Heather Helgeson, Hyrum Patterson, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Mare Thompson, Nicole Quam, Nikki Quam, Sharon Bures, The Office Plays, The Receptionist, The Thugs, Theresa Know, Victoria Thingelstad, Zach Vodden