If you've heard of British playwright Mike Bartlett, it's no doubt because of his provocative play "Cock," which last season created a sensation off-Broadway - and won the British equivalent of a Tony Award years before that. "Cock" focuses on the private action and social consequences of a gay man who falls in love with a woman.
Bartlett's play "Contractions" explores the same private vs. public terrain, as it delves into the he-said/she-said details of an against-the-rules office romance in a large corporation. It only sounds less provocative on paper. As it plays out, now in its U.S. premiere at Studio Theatre, in a production directed by playwright Duncan Macmillan, the short, sharp black comedy provokes hearty laughs before packing an emotional wallop, as one social group - here, the metaphor of a big, heartless corporation - muddies and drains the water out of a budding romance until it becomes a dirty desert.
All action in the play centers on a dozen or so pointed meetings between an initially poised Emma - a convincing, empathetic Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan - and her nameless Manager, played with breathtaking skill and unflinching focus by Holly Twyford. (If you saw Twyford in Signature's 2009 production of Little Dog Laughed, you know her control in the face of the absurd.) "Contractions" plays out like a tennis match, especially in Luciana Stecconi's stylishly sterile set, with a long, narrow table serving as the Manager's desk and separating the two as they serve and lob verbal balls back and forth. The focus is on dissecting Emma's relationship with her never-seen office colleague Darren, from flirtatious first date to childbearing to bitter, bruising end. I mentioned this was a black comedy right? The match, as it were, grows increasingly surreal, and by play's end the Manager, with her frozen smile and rigid personality, reveals herself to be uncaring, maybe even soulless - and a Boss for Life to poor Emma, since she won't let her out of her contractual obligations to the company. Because, you know, Manager knows best.
As a result, Emma is doomed to be a cog in the machine. The question is, socially - that is, metaphorically - speaking, aren't we all? '
"Contractions." Four Stars. To Jan. 27 at the Studio Theatre. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.