In this difficult economy, how far would you go to keep your job? Studio Theatre plumbs the comedy and horror of corporate overreach, ubiquitous surveillance, and the limits of human tolerance in Contractions, a nerve-jangling 60 minute standoff marked by jet black humor and twisted office politics.
Mike Bartlett’s tightly plotted office drama pits the ruthless Manager, played with icy focus by local star Holly Twyford, against unsuspecting employee Emma, played by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan. As the show opens, Emma enters the Manager’s stark white office to discuss her undisclosed relationship with a fellow coworker. A stilted and funny exchange follows, as the two cover company policy and awkward personal details. Twyford’s probing inquiries bring frequent laughs, hinting that many audience members have dealt with similar awkwardness at work.
The Manager’s inquiries continue, each time pressing a bit farther into Emma’s personal life, supposedly in the interest of company productivity and “concern for employees”. What begins as benign and often hilarious documentation creeps imperceptibly toward interrogation as Twyford, with an icy, unwavering voice, demands more and more information and unsettling concessions from Emma.
The audience can only watch in shocked silence as Emma cedes more and more of her happiness and, ultimately, sanity to the Manager and the company, all out of fear of losing her job.
Keegan brings a tragic sensibility to her role, which lulls the audience into complacency even as she submits to progressively harsh treatment. She’s neither a mindless drone nor a hysterical mess, but instead a practical person trapped between a rock and a hard place. That’s the scariest part: no matter how terribly she is treated, Emma’s choice to stay with the company always seems almost reasonable.
Meanwhile, Twyford gives a fascinating turn as Emma’s soulless, sharply dressed tormentor. She pulsates with menace without wrinkling her crisp blazer or even raising her voice. Twyford’s expressive eyes become black pits that observe her employee’s suffering with cold indifference. As she preaches company policy, legal doctrine, and the supremacy of the bottom line, her maddeningly blank stare renders her ever more distant and robotic.
Closes January 27, 2013
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW
1 hour without intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Eerie set and sound design buttress the stellar acting by creating a disorienting ambiance for the audience. Set designer Luciana Stecconi’s stark geometry of polished white floors, walls, table, and file cabinets evokes a top tier law firm or maybe even a space station. It is at once familiar and alien, like the display model of an office in a high end furniture store. Meanwhile, sound designer James Bigbee Garver fills the ellipses between meetings with an eerie cacophony of office noises. Garver’s mishmash of copiers, ringing phones, hole-punchers, and computer hums begins as familiar background noise but grows to an oppressive drone as Emma’s life starts to spiral out of control.
On television dramas, a “Bottle episode” confines characters to a restricted environment in order to conserve budget for later, splashier episodes. Ironically, this cost-cutting often leads to higher quality episodes, due to increased attention to dialogue and character development, rather than over the top theatricality. Contractions operates in much the same way.
Bartlett and director Duncan Macmillan have scored a dramatic coup by neatly distilling economic malaise, corporate greed, and shades of George Orwell’s 1984 into a psychological battle between two actors in a conference room. The claustrophobic production forces the audience to wonder just exactly where they’d draw the line and scream “Enough!”. Even though certain events lie far outside the realm of plausibility, Contractions is still entirely too close for comfort.
Contractions by Mike Bartlett . Directed by Duncan MacMillan . Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Ben Demers