The opening scenes of “Contractions,” Mike Bartlett’s humdinger of a corporate black comedy, will chill to the marrow anyone who’s ever had to fill out a W-2. Emma, a well-groomed worker played by the splendid Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, has been called into the office of her manager, a company stooge portrayed by the equally divine Holly Twyford, employing the bedside manner of a sedate scorpion.
As Emma squirms, the manager clicks her white pen and jots down notes in her pristine files about a relationship Emma has started with a man in her department. The hour-long play at Studio Theatre consists entirely of Emma and the manager’s terse meetings in a white-on-white office better suited to autopsies. At first, their encounters evoke a David Mamet-style contest of wills that holds in suspense who will get the better of whom.
Soon enough, though, the sharp heel of HR bears down on poor Emma, and “Contractions” shifts from the tense gamesmanship of Mamet to the surrealism of Sam Shepard’s plays or Ken Kesey’s novels. Twyford’s manager is a grotesque disguised as business-world functionary — Nurse Ratched in Armani. Her patronizing smile — no one does the pretense of goodwill better than Twyford — is the facade for what lurks terrifyingly behind it:
“Contractions,” stylishly directed by Duncan Macmillan, whose play “Lungs” was given its world premiere at Studio in October 2011, makes its American debut as part of Studio 2ndStage, a play series run by the company’s managing director, Keith Alan Baker. It’s a blackhearted play for the year’s harshest months, fierce and funny, but also so righteous in its convictions that it proves a bit deaf to some of its own more facile assumptions.
The play, performed in 2008 at the Royal Court Theatre on Englishman Bartlett’s home turf, relies on a fairly shopworn premise: the modern corporation as penal colony, albeit with a better dress code. Lapsing into tropes diminishes the work slightly. But if the familiar air of malice perfumes Bartlett’s industrial park, there is a bit of freshness here, too. What the dramatist sends up isn’t so much a soul-numbing uniformity in office life as the notion of a company as a social benefactor: The idea promulgated — maybe even believed — in the “enlightened” front office that the management knows better what’s good for you than you do.
The manager in “Contractions” holds court in Studio’s upstairs raw space at an oblong white conference table, framed by a wall of white cabinet drawers. (Set and lighting designers Luciana Stecconi and Colin K. Bills offer up a vision of sterility to put Mr. Clean to shame.) She’s mightily concerned that Emma abide strictly by her contract, which seems to empower the manager to probe far more deeply into private matters than would seem called for. Is Emma in a romance with the unseen Darren, a colleague in their unnamed department? If so, are they having sex? And if so, how often? And, by the way, is the sex any good?
The exchanges intermingle inquiries that sound reasonable and those that sound outrageous; the piece’s offbeat rhythms leave you pleasingly uncertain about where the narrative is headed (until the somewhat pat conclusion). Twyford is so effortlessly in command here that you willingly follow her through the play’s most macabre twists, including one in which the manager requires Emma to produce corporeal evidence to back up her most wrenching personal confession. The poker face with which Twyford greets the material reminds you how nimble are her comic gifts.
Wilmoth Keegan, like Twyford, is guided by Macmillan to a meticulously well-modulated performance. Her transformation from a sturdy Emma up for the demands of the manager’s cat-and-mouse game, to one who’s been deprived of all of her defenses, is securely executed and made all the more persuasive by its step-by-step definitiveness.
“Contractions” is “The Office” with a swerve toward the Gothic, a play leading you to the conclusion that in every workplace compact, the devil really is in the details. It also is one of those dramas-in-microcosm that feel as if they can receive no better treatment than the kind Studio can administer. In the annual audit, this one goes squarely in the asset column.
by Mike Bartlett. Directed by Duncan Macmillan. Set, Luciana Stecconi; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, James Bigbee Garver; costumes, Brandee Mathies; dramaturge, Adrian-Alice Hansel. About one hour. Through Jan. 27 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.