At this point, there’s an entire genre of books, TV shows, and films about bad bosses and the bizarre vagaries of corporate workplaces. One of the perhaps lesser-known but extremely effective installments in this tradition is British playwright Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, which has been given new life in a spare but precisely effective production at Capital Fringe.
Julia M. Hurley, making her Fringe directing debut with this satirical workplace two-hander, does an excellent job creating the tense air of a conference room that feels more like an interrogation room or torture chamber. Daniel Mori’s sterile black-and-white set perfectly reflects a world in which shades of gray and human emotion have no place. E-Hui Woo’s lighting design and Jordana Abrenica’s sound design evoke the static, fluorescent nature of a cube farm and help to mark the passage of time between meetings.
closes July 23, 2017
Details and tickets
But let me back up for a minute: Katelyn Manfre plays Emma, a newcomer to an unnamed corporation who’s very good at her job and has excellent sales numbers. Still, her Manager (Miranda Zola) has some questions for her, specifically about her social life and any fraternization with her colleagues. Through a series of one-on-one meetings that become more and more absurd as they go along (the words, “Emma, come in. Sit down.” will haunt your nightmares), Emma is forced to deal with increasingly intrusive corporate policies in order to keep her much-sought-after position with the company.
Manfre excels at playing the everywoman who is forced to respond to a barrage of ridiculous and frankly inappropriate sets of rules and regulations while maintaining a sense of professionalism. She avoids going too big, and her nuanced portrayal makes her the perfect audience cipher. Zola apparently stepped up to fill in for an actor who bowed out late in the process and so wasn’t able to be off-book for opening night, which actually worked quite well, given that for the majority of the play she is seated at a desk and reading through reports. Her performance expertly conveys the menacing nature of a boss who says outrageous or offensive things without ever cracking the thin veneer of perfect politeness or losing the smile from her face.
Bartlett wrote Contractions in 2007, and it received its US premiere here in DC in 2013, but the material is mostly timeless. The only thing that feels dated is references that make it clear that Emma would have a lot of difficulty finding a new job, which keeps her from just walking out—“in this economy”-type statements don’t have the same resonance, thankfully, as they did ten or even four years ago.
Contractions has the conflicting effect of making you want to thank your own boss come Monday morning for not being so bad, and also quit your job and never work again. My only quibble with the production is that it feels more like the first act of a longer work than a fully-formed piece in and of itself. I longed for Emma to have her comeuppance—which is really just a testament to the strength of the direction and performances, in that they can make us feel so invested in Emma’s well-being in such a short period of time.
Contractions by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Julia M. Hurley. Featuring: Miranda Zola and Katelyn Manfre. Scenic design: Daniel Mori. Lighting design: E-hui Woo. Sound design: Jordana Abrenica. Production stage manger: Deborah Gur. Produced by Julia M. Hurley. Reviewed by John Bavoso.