Holly Twyford, at her hard-plastic best, is the Big Bad in Contractions, a pitch-black satire of corporate soullessness from Mike Bartlett, the on-the-rise British playwright who made a splash in New York last year with the bleak relationship drama Cock.
Twyford plays an anonymous executive at some nameless multinational, a sunny soulless suit charged with enforcing the more personal clauses of a contract that binds Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), who’s apparently a recent hire in sales. That’s all we’ll learn about Emma’s professional duties; what The Manager will extract in terms of her off-the-clock behavior is rather more detailed.
Emma, you see, may have done some flirting over dinner with Darren, one of her new colleagues. That tripped a flag for H.R., which is charged with ensuring workplace fairness; wouldn’t want anyone playing favorites, right? So Twyford’s chilly-chipper Manager, enthroned in a white-on-white office that looks like it’s just been prepped for surgery, simply wants to be sure Emma and her fella aren’t keeping any secrets about their “sexual or romantic” encounter and how it might play out over time. In a polite series of increasingly intrusive interviews, Twyford interrogates Emma: Is this thing going anywhere? How fast? Have you done the deed? Was it any good?
This is all in Emma’s best interest, of course: “We have a duty of care,” Twyford will say three times over the course of the play’s brisk hour, flashing a stiletto of a smile that never, ever reaches as far as her dead, dark eyes. The company’s putatively loving embrace will eventually extend to reassignments, recommendations about relationship boundaries, even—when Emma’s efforts at compliance have reached their extreme—a request for documentation that might horrify an apparatchik in Khrushchev’s politburo.
Keegan’s Emma shows enough spark early on that you half expect her to crack the Manager’s immaculate façade eventually, but that’s not where Bartlett’s going. There’s literally nothing human about Twyford’s character—which must be a huge challenge for the actress. There’s no story arc for her; she’s as implacable at the finish as at the start.
It’s the play’s baseline flaw, too. Much as some might like to hate on corporate excess, companies in the real world are run by actual humans, each of them with a conscience to complicate their flaws. Still, as satire goes, it’s biting stuff—all the cruelties of impersonal bureaucracy made corporeal.
Tryst By Karoline Leach Directed by Kasi Campbell; At Washington Stage Guild to Jan. 27
Another toxic relationship is on display at Washington Stage Guild, where a con man emerges from the shadows to seduce a shopgirl in an assured staging of the black-edged Edwardian romance Tryst. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Felipe Cabezas’ dapper George Love is up to no good: He tells you so up front. His game is to spot the lonely ones with a bit of savings tucked away and to woo them, wed them, bed them, and then make off with their nest eggs.
Enter Adelaide (the superb Emily Townley), a frumpy millinery worker with a fine hand for hatmaking and a dark domestic secret or two. She’s all but given up on love, so George’s suave come-on pretty much lays her low—at least until their seaside honeymoon surfaces those hard home truths (hint: Daddy wasn’t a very nice man) and forces him to shift strategies.
As George coaxes Adelaide through a wedding night that doesn’t go quite as he’d planned, her distress awakens a shred of sympathy in him. By next day, though, he’s hardened his heart and ready to clinch the con—only to discover that Adelaide isn’t quite the patsy he’s thought.
What follows, in the taut denouement of Kasi Campbell’s elegant, minimalist production, is a morbidly fascinating battle of wits and wills, with Adelaide proposing a sort of rehabilitational joint venture that’ll capitalize on both of their talents. Will George give up the low life and allow himself to be domesticated? Can Adelaide channel her newfound confidence into success as a sole proprietor? Can love—or even trust—bloom between these two deeply scarred specimens?
The eventual answer may strike some as too melodramatic to be believed—until they emerge to discover the lobby placards detailing the real-life story on which Karoline Leach based the play. Many and strange are the ways of the heart, and stranger still the things we’ll do for money.