New York is a notoriously tough town, but on felicitous occasions it can seem to bend to your will, if only for an instant. A couple of weeks ago last Sunday, after a sold-out preview of his new play The Receptionist at Manhattan Theatre Club's West 55th Street stage, the Canadian-born playwright Adam Bock wandered onto Seventh Avenue for a photo shoot and beheld an unnerving, post-apocalyptic scene.
A street fair had wound up a couple of hours beforehand, and swirls of flyers and paper plates and other debris floated up and down the dark avenue like urban tumbleweeds. As Bock strode into the middle of the shuttered street, he braved a smile, even as he seemed to be walking into a nightmarish landscape of his own creation. Strange noises - whirrings and screechings and metallic crunchings, which may or may not have been Department of Sanitation sweeping trucks - emanated from the side streets, unseen but menacing.
Unseen menace is a hallmark of Bock's recent work, which last year brought him to a new level of attention when his unsettling drama The Thugs enjoyed critical acclaim and an extended run downtown at SoHo Rep.
Set among temps working in a law office, The Thugs cultivated an air of paranoid uncertainty; rumours spread about lawyers on other floors dying, or getting killed, or maybe just disappearing. The temps, too, began to disappear.
"I was looking at fear," explains Bock, seated now in the patrons' lounge downstairs at City Center, where the Manhattan Theatre Club has its two off-Broadway stages. (The Biltmore is MTC's Broadway house.) The Receptionist audience left more than half an hour ago, and the building is now all but deserted. Bock is 45 years old, though he could pass for 10 years younger, an effect aided by his wardrobe of jeans and a T-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt.
"With The Thugs, I tried to write about how, because people were so afraid of something, they weren't noticing something in front of them, which is basically what Iraq is about. And that impulse in people to scare themselves and actually avoid looking at what's going on."
The Receptionist opened last week and runs to Dec. 16.
In it, Bock again puts at centre stage the sort of person who usually doesn't draw our attention, the titular receptionist in a non-descript office, an anonymous cog in a white-collar machine. As in The Thugs, Bock demonstrates that he has such an admirable ear for the rhythms and social intricacies of superficial workplace speech that the 70-minute play is more than halfway over before the audience gets an inkling that the banal workplace on display may be harbouring unnerving activities just offstage. Evil, menacing activities. "It's just impossible to ignore," says Bock, meaning menace. "This culture's trying to figure out what to do with fear. America has to figure out what to do with fear."
This is as directly political as his stage work gets, unless you count the fact that the bulk of his plays often deal with sexual politics. (Bock is gay.) "My stuff's more about feelings," he says.
"I'm not a deep political thinker. Thornton Wilder said this great thing about Shakespeare. He said, the reason Shakespeare is so great is you don't hear the axe grinding. It's so brilliant, because it's hard not to write things on purpose. My job I feel as an artist is to write things that are important, but also I'm trying to write so that the group talks about it, rather than me. Leaving room for the audience to actually have an opinion and stand up for their own opinion is important to me. That actually is kind of political to me." Not everyone loves the approach.
Both The Thugs and The Receptionist are brief one-act works, and after a recent performance of the new play, a few elderly audience members were left confounded by the abrupt ending. Others felt that both plays were tiny little jewels, all the more powerful for their unwillingness to spell out everything.
Born in Montreal, Bock left the city at age 15, in 1977, when the previous year's election of the Parti Québécois spurred anxiety among the city's Anglo community and prompted his parents to send him to high school in Maine. He has proudly retained his Canadian citizenship, even if home is now New York.
When he speaks about America he uses the word "we," which is understandable, given that he has now lived in the United States for 30 years.
But sometimes it's hard on his parents, who still live in Montreal. (His mother is a local activist.) "I like to be a Canadian in America, looking at America - and loving it, and also being really disappointed in it sometimes, and also exhilarated by it," he says. He has a sunny disposition, even if he is speaking of disturbing matters.
His arrival at MTC, an honest-to-goodness uptown theatre, has been a long time coming. Bock first flirted with New York theatre in 1989, after graduating with a master's degree from Brown, where he'd studied with playwright Paula Vogel. He came to the city full of hopes, which were promptly dashed by a bad experience with the production of his play Percy Stripped Down. He fled New York and quit theatre for a number of years, until writing a gay-themed pageant based on The Nutcracker - which helped friends in their process of coming-out - proved to him he could help his community and himself. He moved to San Francisco and wrote a flurry of offbeat plays including Swimming in the Shallows, about a gay man who falls in love with a shark. The play has been produced all over North America, including a French-language staging in Montreal.
Bock has a development deal with the Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, though he's still barely making enough money to cover the rent on his tiny walkup in Hell's Kitchen. Only last year, he was supplementing his income with some freelance proofreading work for an ad agency.
That may be about to change. MTC has thrown some impressive talents behind The Receptionist: Director Joe Mantello, whose recent credits range from Glengarry Glen Ross to Wicked and the Julia Roberts vehicle Three Days of Rain, creates a slickly unsettling piece with the actors Jayne Houdyshell, Kendra Kassebaum, Robert Foxworth and Josh Charles (TV's Sports Night). All represent the sort of pedigreed resources that can be marshalled by an uptown theatre with a base of subscribers. Bock knows this is an important moment in his career.
"If this one play sells well, more people could see it than all of my other plays," he says, sounding more excited than unnerved. "They have 300 seats, 100 performances, that's 30,000 people. Normally I would do 20 performances, 70 seats [for a total of 1,400 people] So if I actually care about people talking about my play, this is a place to come and start doing it. And if people thought this was good, then other theatres around the country look to Manhattan Theatre Club. So I'm lucky to be here. It's a beautiful production."
"I got to work with Joe Mantello, and Jayne Houdyshell, who's a great actor. The actors are fabulous. I used to have an art teacher who used to say that, when you're making a painting, use the best materials you can, because it may be the one good one you'd make. And the people I got to work with and how well they produced it - I couldn't blame anybody else if something didn't work, you know?"