Through Jan. 27
The Studio Theatre (Studio 2ndstage)
1501 14th Street, NW
With “Contractions,” British playwright Mike Bartlett takes the horrors of corporate servitude to the nth degree.
Now making its American premiere at Studio 2ndStage, Bartlett’s workplace satire is laugh-out-loud funny and menacingly dark at once. It unfolds through a series of increasingly uncomfortable meetings in which Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a newly hired sales professional at an unnamed corporation, is relentlessly and methodically questioned by a bizarrely inquisitive manager (Holly Twyford). Both clad in sleek black suits (pants for the manager and skirts for Emma) and super-high heels, the pair review employee regulations giving special attention to the sections pertaining to romantic and sexual relationships among employees.
Any suspicions that the manager’s obsessive inquiry into the most minute details of Emma’s sex life is driven by prurient interests or perhaps her lustful designs on the new, younger employee are rather quickly put to rest when it becomes abundantly clear that her every move — even the most perverse — are done to benefit the company’s bottom line.
More and more, the manager’s inquiries and directives grow ludicrously outrageous. Initially Emma is her superior’s match, but not for long. Volleys build into one-sided brutal attacks and it’s soon evident that Emma can’t compete with a company-backed opponent. After being frequently reminded about the sluggish job market and that there are more than a hundred applicants ready and willing to fill her corporate position, Emma surrenders to HR’s demands. She devolves from confident and sexy to broken and bereft. At one point, Emma asks the heartless boss if she bleeds. And while we never get that answer, we do become acquainted with some of Emma’s bodily fluids. And no wonder with the battering she goes through.
British director Duncan Macmillan ably helms the top-notch production and Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan both deliver knockout performances. With a frozen smile, glazed eyes and hilariously placed pauses, Twyford (who is gay) is at the top of her game as the corporate automaton. Wilmoth Keegan is equally terrific and wonderfully natural as Emma.
“Contractions” is not the first time Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan have successfully joined forces. In the fall of 2011, Wilmoth Keegan played the victim of a brutal gay bashing in “Stop Kiss,” Diane Son’s play about women friends turned lovers. The well-received No Rules Theatre Company production marked Twyford’s directorial debut.
Bartlett, the playwright, is best known for “Cock,” his hit play (in London and New York) about a happily partnered gay man who falls in love with a woman.
“Contractions” is set entirely in the manager’s stark office. Designed by Luciana Stecconi, it’s a minimalist’s wet dream: white walls, white floors, white light (compliments of Colin K. Bills), and two white office chairs positioned at opposite ends of a long, white conference table. Discreetly built-in cabinets contain scarily detailed personnel files. No clutter. No art. No signs of life at all really. It’s a sterile space, perfectly suited for surgically excising what makes an employee human.