Occupational Hazards

‘Contractions’ probes the dark side of corporate culture

The unnamed manager (Holly Twyford, left) questions Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).
The unnamed manager (Holly Twyford, left) questions Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan).

How far would you go to keep your job? That’s the question asked (again and again) of Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in Studio Theatre’s U.S. premiere of “Contractions.” In this satirical look at corporate control of our everyday lives, Emma squares off with her manager (Holly Twyford), trying to negotiate work-life balance.

“When you first see it, it feels like a very clever, familiar experience,” says director Duncan Macmillan, “but it’s a Trojan horse — [playwright Mike Bartlett] gives you something that feels familiar, and then there’s something lurking in it that’s very subtle and destructive.”

It’s obvious from the play’s start that something is off in the fluorescent conference room set; this is a chilly workplace. And Twyford’s nameless, emotionless character is not a person, even if she is wearing stiletto heels. Instead, she’s the embodiment of a company.

An actor’s job is to communicate with the audience, but Twyford’s task here is, as Macmillan puts it, “to confidently be onstage and communicate nothing.”

Though the manager doesn’t have a character, she does have a gender. And since “Contractions” deals with the politics of clauses in employment contracts that require employees to disclose personal details, using a female actor was key.

“If you put a man in that part, it becomes about him not having empathy for [Emma]” because he’s male, Macmillan says.

A story of an employee tormented by a sadistic manager would be simple. But what happens over the play’s course is scarier: “The question is,” Macmillan says, “are we giving away access to our private lives?”

Though the creative team behind the play is British, the corporate culture depicted in “Contractions” doesn’t feel foreign.

“America in some ways is like the U.K. with the volume turned up,” Macmillan says. As the play races along, Bartlett turns up the absurdity — and the darkness.

“The most horrifying stuff in the play is also the funniest,” Macmillan says.

Backstory: Duncan Macmillan — whose“Lungs” premiered at Studio Theatre in 2011 — normally identifies as a playwright. But when he was promoting “Contractions” to David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, Muse pushed him to direct. “The only times I’ve directed are when I’ve really believed in a project,” Macmillan says, and “Contractions” fit the bill.

Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW; through Jan. 27, $30-$35; 202-332-3300. (Dupont Circle)
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