nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2007
The Receipt is pure, genius theatre: as elemental as Our Town and as tied to our current historical moment as YouTube and MySpace. It's a brilliant start to this year's Brits Off Broadway festival.
If you caught a couple of the 2005 Brits OB shows, you'll have met The Receipt's creator/performers. Will Adamsdale, who narrates and enacts the story of The Receipt, starred in the splendid one-man self-help show satire Jackson's Way that year, and was also one of the performers in Faster. Chris Branch, provider of all of the many sound effects in The Receipt (along with lots of dialogue, as the play's myriad antagonists) was one of the sound guys on Faster. (I mention this because knowing Adamsdale and Branch's work made me want to see The Receipt. I was right.)
The show's loose but effective framing concept is that we're well into the future, and Adamsdale is giving us a lecture about what life was like in a period of ancient history that we quickly infer is the one we presently live in; he and Branch quarrel about the pronunciation of the place where the tale they're going to tell us took place (Glondon? Glyndin?).
Disarmingly and hilariously, our teachers "explain" some of the quirks of human life in the so-called Information Age. People, apparently, had a kind of amnesia; they needed to be reminded of what food looked like (they tell us, holding up a copy of a magazine like Gourmet) and what things were called (the exhibit this time is a Bloomingdale's bag). They lived in big buildings, in small boxy rooms (a file cabinet is used as the prototype here), and though they could hear their neighbors through the thin walls, they never actually interacted with them.
The heart of Adamsdale and Branch's story is an account of an anonymous man, typical of his era, who one day finds a receipt on the street. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to him, he picks the receipt up and, rather than tossing it in the trash, he reads it. It's for a glass of wine, from a bar called BarSpaceBar. There's a server number and a customer number and some other enigmatic coding. He reasons: I can research all of these codes and figures and actually find out who owned this receipt. And then he embraces this Big Idea, and embarks on a quixotic project to locate and perhaps even connect with this mysterious stranger who lost a receipt that he happened to find.
I hope that buried in that description are enough clues to the beauty and power of this work's compelling central idea, because I want you to see The Receipt and I don't want to give away too much of what happens in it. Adamsdale and Branch paint a clear-eyed, thoughtful, compassionate view of what it's like to be an office drone in a big city (in particular) and an anonymous, unwittingly alienated node on the international Internet (in general). We watch our hero go to work, go home, and traverse London on his quest to locate his elusive wine-buyer, and everywhere he goes, we see that while he constantly encounters people, he never actually communicates with them (or they with him). In a world full of so-called connectivity, how is it that no one ever connects?
The themes are developed with wit and without sentimentality, in a dazzling minimalist theatrical style that keeps the audience consistently present in the piece. I suspect that bits of it are actually improvised each night, in response to the vibe in the room. It's immersive and actively communicative; a demonstration, perhaps, of what seems to be missing from too many parts of our lives. Maybe that's why it feels so essential.
As for Adamsdale and Branch, well, they're just extraordinary. Branch's sound effects run the gamut from the dizzyingly high tech ("played" live, on a keyboard and sound board) to the deliciously primitive (shutting a file drawer to represent an elevator door closing). Adamsdale's very physical acting helps transform the sparse set into the entire city of "Glondon" ("design help," per the program, is by Mervyn Millar). Both men are consummate actors and writers; The Receipt may be the best-written new play of the season, in fact, even though it often feels as if it's being made upon the spot.
Enough said. Go see The Receipt, and remember what it can be like to not only feel something in the theatre, but to actively engage with a work of art.