The most fearless black comedies have a sense of inevitability about them. They lay out the off-kilter logic of their premise and take it to its nasty conclusion. Contractions, the new black comedy from English playwright Mike Bartlett, unspools with inexorable confidence, taking the audience into surreal, disturbing territory. The economy of his play, both in terms of character and setting, nonetheless leave ample room to explore how employees acquiesce to cold, corporate logic. It turns out the business world, not the military, is far more efficient at constructing a heartless catch-22.
Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth-Keegan) looks dapper and utterly presentable when she enters her manager’s office. She knows her sales figures are strong, so there is no reason for concern when her manger (Holly Twyford) speaks to her with precise, gentle tones. The manager wants to discuss a specific paragraph in Emma’s contract, the one about disclosing a romantic and/or sexual relationship with another employee. Emma, on guard and listening carefully, ensures her manager there’s nothing to disclose. There are more meetings because Emma begins seeing Darren, who is spoken about but never seen. Their relationship is tentative before it becomes serious, and as it changes, the manager carefully explains what it means for Emma’s position within the company. Her choices are difficult at first, and then they only grow more horrific.
Bartlett uses the restrictive language of an employment contract as an opportunity to get creative about the drama. In a funny scene, the manager fact-checks the particulars of Emma’s relationship with Darren, and tells Emma when she disagrees with Darren about how long they expect the relationship to last. Throughout the play, Twyford achieves the right balance of civility and indifference. The character is never vindictive, and instead exists as a measured, deliberate vessel of amoral legal policy. Keegan is the opposite: she begins the play with deference and tact, which gives way to madness and grief. She ably sells the transition, leaving enough room for us to laugh at her situation, or be repulsed by it. The austerely elegant set only heightens Emma’s undoing. We grow accustomed to the symmetry of boss and underling, so it’s all the more alarming when Emma breaks that line.
Our workplaces can be maddening. Upper management, largely unaware of the actual good work being done, sometimes prefers to focus on the trees and not the forest. There’s a touch of Office Space in Contractions, but Bartlett wants to cut deeper. He begins with two women, each the pinnacle of professionalism, and ruins one woman’s life so we may see the other’s inhumanity. We never learn the manager’s name, of course, despite Emma pleads with her to engage on a person-to-person level. And even when a truly macabre prop makes an appearance, Bartlett’s workplace is not unlike our own. That’s another thing about fearless black comedies like this. They force us to look at our lives a little differently, with a cynical eye and little more doubt. The company in Contractions cares about its employees, as long as they’re uncomplicated, happy drones.
Contractions is at The Studio Theatre until January 27th. Buy tickets here!