The Kid Gets Into Pictures

By Gerard Raymond

Originally published on Advocate.com December 06 2007 1:00 AM ET

“I write
about gay people or I write about people that are not
usually the center of the story,” says
playwright Adam Bock. There are no gay characters or
same-sex plotlines in The
Receptionist—
Bock's latest
production, currently playing off-Broadway at the
Manhattan Theatre Club -- however, the title character
is a woman in her 50s. “I wanted to put an older
woman in the center of the play,” says Bock,
explaining that he once worked at a receptionist
himself for a temp agency. “I had so much power and
no power at the same time. I knew everything that was
going on in the office, and yet, when the office party
was happening, I had to sit at my desk.” He
draws the parallel to his experiences as a gay man.
“I’m a white man and I went to Ivy
League schools and I’ve had the most privilege. And
yet, at the same time, someone could call me a fag and
I am dismissed.”

Tim Sanford,
artistic director at New York’s Playwrights Horizons
-- which presents Bock’s other new work, TheDrunken City, beginning in March -- describes him
as “deeply special, unique, sunny, trenchant, funny,
deep." However, Sanford notes that there are seeming
contradictions in Bock’s work. “He
writes about characters going through big events and
transitions, but filtered through a decidedly everyday
lens. His use of language is taut and jumpy but also
expressive and rhythmically poetic.”

Indeed,
Bock’s off-kilter approach to storytelling, as well
as his acknowledgement of traditionally sidelined
characters, is probably the constant in an eclectic
series of funny and challenging plays he has turned
out over the past 10 years. In Swimming in the
Shallows
(which won the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle
award for Best Play in 1999) a man falls in love with
a (somewhat literal) shark and tries not to sleep with
him too fast on the first date. His Obie
Award–winning The Thugs tapped into the
unsettling and sometimes scary experiences of temps working
late nights in near-empty office buildings. And The
Shaker Chair, a
coproduction by Shotgun
Players and Encore Theatre Company in Berkeley,
Calif., that opens December 12, focuses on older women
and environmental activism. When he writes gay characters,
they are full-blooded and sexy; The Advocate
review of his 2004 comedy Five Flights singled
it out for “the best gay male kiss” ever
seen onstage. “I was very proud of
that,” Bock says with a chuckle. “I
always thought it would be great to date a hockey
player -- he’d say, ‘Honey, we won the game,
come to bed!’ ”

Bock's acute
sense of the "other" has been fed by his experience
growing up as an English-Canadian raised in French-speaking
Montreal. Still, it's his sexuality that has most
informed his interest in the outsider.
“It’s an immediate recognition when you are
gay," offers Bock, "that the world isn’t as the
dominant narrative says it is.” Of course, Bock
also had the good fortune of being taught by Pulitzer
Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel (How I
Learned to Drive
) at Brown University in Providence.
“Paula is not afraid of breaking the way things
are done,” says Bock. “She asks you to
challenge the shape of the story. She said, 'If you change
the way a story is told, the content will change too.'

Bock tests her
theory quite literally in TheDrunken City, a comedy about six people in
their late 20s and early 30s. His script calls for the
set itself to shift balance, bringing different groups of
people -- including two gay men falling in love with
each other -- in and out of focus. “The world
tilts, and then the boys get into the center,” Bock
explains. “We have decided without thinking who gets
to be in the center, and when that is challenged there
are all these big fights.”

Vogel recalls
Bock as “writing wild and funny plays, plays with
enormous theatricality, vivid language, and a
fearlessness in embracing the strange.” When I
ask her about his evolution in The Receptionist --
written a decade after she first met him -- she adds,
“We’ve got a writer who understands human
manipulation and cruelty in an environment of
government-sponsored suppression, and in this current
stage he reminds me a great deal of Harold Pinter. I
think we should all be watching him.”

After he
completed studies at Brown, Bock threw himself into AIDS
activism, becoming involved with ACT UP and Queer Nation in
Rhode Island. He also wrote plays specifically for the
gay community in Providence. “I was a
propagandist for a while, and I started doing this thing
called The Gay Boy Nutcracker, a Christmas
pageant.” Writing queer-themed playlets set to
the traditional Tchaikovsky music, he included such
items as a lesbian marriage and a lesbian ballet in the
seasonal productions, which ran over a four-year
period. He subsequently moved to San Francisco, where
he pursued playwriting while supporting himself with
part-time jobs. Then five years ago he arrived in New
York City, where he has managed to successfully launch
himself as a full-time playwright.

Now in his mid
40s, Bock is ready for the next phase in his career. He
recently signed a deal with producer Scott Rudin to work on
a yet-to-be-determined film script. Looking back to
the 1990s, he notes, “I think the AIDS crisis
knocked a lot of people for a loop, and exhausted us.
For gay men, in particular, who are into their 40s and
50s...we missed a whole group who never got to be that
age. I think it is going to be really interesting to
watch gay men take power and how we are going to use
it. I can feel myself revving up again.”