Theater Review: “Contractions” at Studio Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s pitch-black comedy delves into a culture in which corporations rule everything.

By: Sophie Gilbert

When Mitt Romney calmly told a heckler at the Iowa State Fair two years ago that “corporations are people, my friend,” it was a moment that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the public’s perception of him as an emotionless, immaculately coiffed hedge fund robot, delivered unto America by God and the planet Greenback to restore order and grooming to a dangerously messy, undisciplined society.

The nameless corporation featured in Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, however, is so tyrannical, so absurdly controlling, and so devoid of humanity that it makes Bain Capital look like Amnesty International. Currently playing at Studio Theatre through January 27, and directed by Bartlett’s friend and fellow Brit Duncan Macmillan (author of Studio’s 2012 hit Lungs), Contractions opens innocently enough, with Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth-Keegan) being summoned into a meeting with her manager (Holly Twyford) to discuss the job she’s recently started at the company.

Both characters sport severe hairstyles, power heels, discreet jewelry, and airs of breathtaking confidence, and exchange eye contact for such extended periods of time that you can almost taste the testosterone. Emma holds her own, crossing her legs and tackling intrusive questions about her personal life with aplomb, but alas, something is rotten in this state of debriefing. Twyford’s manager, who’s seated in her chair onstage from the minute the audience enters the room, never leaves the stage, inhabiting the sterile white space through scene changes and constantly summoning Emma back in to meet with her, greeting her each time with the drawled, “Ah, Emma. How’re things?”

Bartlett’s play is short—about an hour—but it manages to pay homage to a surprising number of great plays, from the rampant careerism of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to the surreal looping and rebooting of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The enthralling power struggles played out between the gutsy Emma and her insanely robotic boss feel quite brilliantly Pinteresque: There’s comedy in Twyford’s breathtakingly audacious questions to her subordinate, which include asking exactly how good Emma’s last sexual encounter was, and there’s menace in every pointed interaction between the pair. Only once does Bartlett hint at why Emma might not run away screaming at her earliest opportunity, when Twyford’s manager describes “the way things are” and how Emma is exceedingly unlikely to find alternate employment.

Macmillan takes every opportunity to make the audience uncomfortable, from the screeching, atonal soundtrack by James Garver that plays before the show even begins to the rattling, rustling sounds and moody lighting that punctuate scenes, tweaking sounds of photocopiers and fax machines so they start to sound like instruments of torture. The costumes by Brandee Mathies amplify the physical comedy of it all—each time Emma enters the room she sports a different color blouse, and as her status rises and falls, so does the height of her heels.

Macmillan also has two extremely adept actors on his hand. Twyford is so unshakably soulless as Emma’s manager that she could make a line of HTML code look positively histrionic. The tempo and tone of her voice is precisely controlled, managing to reproduce the exact same inflection of her greeting at the start of every scene. During the show’s most startling and absurd moments, Twyford remains utterly blank, and yet she exudes intimidation without moving a single facial muscle. Even the character’s walk from one side of the set to the other, clumsy in six-inch stilettos, feels threatening.

As Emma, Wilmoth-Keegan has to run the gamut of emotional states from her poised self-assurance at the beginning of the play to her inevitable transformation. She does a remarkable job, managing to appear as human as Twyford seems automated. As the play proceeds and things degenerate from satirical to absurd, the audience’s empathy with Emma reminds us constantly that this state of totalitarian corporate control is only a breath or two away from mandated drug tests and HR-monitored e-mail accounts. Bartlett’s universe is terrifying in its drone-like insistence on rules, but the most terrifying thing of all is that it isn’t entirely outside of the realm of plausibility.

Contractions is at Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage through January 27. Running time is one hour, with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available via Studio’s website.