Mike Bartlett's chilling Contractions, now making its US premiere at Studio 2nd Stage (a division of Studio Theatre), takes on a subject matter that's often been the focus of plays, movies, and television shows - office politics in large for-profit corporations - and makes the expected rather unexpected. What could have been just another comedic play about an office romance gone wrong quickly becomes one that presents audiences with a heightened reality, which the playwright uses to examine questions of privacy invasion and just how far is too far when it comes to how members of management control what their subordinates do on and off the job. Original, compelling, creative, and witty, Bartlett's slightly absurdist tale (albeit one with threads of reality) is brought to life by a strong creative team and cast at Studio Theatre.
Initially, we meet the cold and calculating unnamed Manager (Holly Twyford) in a sterile, white, and modern conference room (designed by Luciana Stecconi) with institutional lighting (Colin K. Bills) from which the sounds (designed by James Bigbee Garver) of a typical office can be heard. She has called her new eager sales employee, Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth-Keegan), into the room to have a discussion about her relationships with her co-workers - particularly whether those relationships skew toward the sexual or romantic variety, which would be a violation of her employment contract. This process is repeated more than once and eventually it comes to light that Emma is in a relationship with a co-worker, Darren (who is never seen). Comedic scenes ensue as Emma describes the nature of the relationship to her superior. Eventually, the powerful Manager employs quantitative analysis to determine the proper course of action to deal with the situation (send Darren to another location), which, based on her calculations, she concludes is temporary. The relationship does not end as mathematically forecasted and the discussions of what to do with the offending Emma (who now has a child with Darren) take a dark turn. A struggle between the powerful and the powerless - and the controlling and the controlled - quickly escalates into an unfathomable situation and the ending is one that's certainly unexpected.
Bartlett's satirical script is one that uses an initially common situation - a meeting between a manager and a subordinate - to examine a variety of psychosocial issues at play in modern employment situations. Although privacy issues are central to the discussion, they are not the only ones explored - others include gender equality, the issue of wellness/well-being in the workplace (the question of whose well-being, in particular, is protected), and the appropriate uses of power (including 'sticks' and 'carrots') to achieve a business goal. The strength within the script lies in the fact that he's able to explore all of these issues seamlessly in a case study of sorts without appearing like he's thrown in every issue 'but the kitchen sink.' Likewise, although the piece was most certainly developed with an agenda in mind, but the playwright's craft is such that the agenda does not overpower the telling of the story although it does drive it. Story-telling is not sacrificed, which in the end, makes for good theatre.
Despite the strength of the script, it's likely that it would not have the impact it does in the hands of a lesser director and cast. Under the nearly impeccable direction of Duncan Macmillan, Twyford and Wilmoth-Keegan handle the fine lines between comedy and drama and realism and camp in the play. Twyford, who is quite possibly one of the most skilled actresses in DC, is remarkably stoic, detached, and calculating as the 'any woman' Manager. The fact that she never shows any emotion - except for a hint of self-reflection in a crucial scene near the end of the play - is a testament to her skill. Much like the suit (designed by Brandee Mathies) she wears through all of her meetings with Emma, the Manager never changes. Holly Twyford's performance is the definition of complete consistency. In contrast, Wilmoth-Keegan is tasked with embodying a character that is put through the emotional ringer and, as such, delivers a bravely human performance that necessarily runs the emotional gamut, but is never overplayed. As Emma grasps with seemingly unimaginable obstacles, her appearance and inner-spirit are deeply affected and, through both verbal and non-verbal cues, Ms. Wilmoth-Keegan beautifully captures her demise and, incidentally, her 'recovery.' Collectively, these two skilled actresses give local audiences what equates to a masterclass in acting - the way that they play off one another is quite exquisite.