“Love Contract”

That was the original (and better) title of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, a one-act play I saw at the Studio Theater on Wednesday. The play starts when Emma, some kind of saleswoman, is called to a sterile, glowy dystopian boardroom to speak with a corporate apparatchik about a possible contract violation. The apparatchik, also a lady, has her read the section of her contract on “romantic or sexual relationships.” The contract requires all employees to notify management when they begin such a relationship and Emma, it appears, has been hiding something.

The play starts out creepy but light: Two people don’t agree on whether their kiss was romantic! Imagine if your DTRs were mediated through Human Resources! But it rapidly becomes tense and then grueling, as the corporation extends its control over Emma’s personal life and she attempts to comply, fearing that she won’t be able to find another job. By the time she’s hauling a dead body into the office… well, things have gotten rough.

ETA: I realize I didn’t talk about the acting. The acting is always great at Studio. Here the most noticeable thing was probably how perfect the women’s fake, performative smiles were. Click! and it’s there.

The play does what it needs to do, even though the horror sequences toward the end are I think a bit unfocused. On its face it’s a parable about desperation and corporate control of workers’ lives–you can see the fears about doing a job interview while pregnant, juggling shifts and day care, the workplaces where you can’t gain weight or smoke even off the clock. There are other levels too: The play captures, in a particularly intense form, the pathos of our attempts to justify our loves in terms of rules and abstract standards. You can see that happen in pretty much any family law case: Did you “act as” a parent? Are you married, were there irreconcilable differences, are you a father or a sperm donor, should you get death benefits?

And Contractions shows the pain and untruth, the failure of language, inherent in any attempt to standardize our inner lives. I was reminded not only of corporate and legal contexts but even of Confession–how little the rules about sin cover the experience of sin. In a certain sense you do feel, in the confessional, as if you’re reading out your violations of the love contract, and it can sound about as sterile as it does here.

So on a whole lot of levels Contractions works. It gives us vivid, memorable imagery for things we’ve all experienced. It increases empathy with anyone in a subordinate position, since it highlights the way power shapes whose definitions are accepted. (A point I made in a different context here.) And its central metaphor is multifaceted, and can refract into outrage or heartbreak depending on which situations you’re using it to illuminate.

There’s also a great, painful moment when Emma names the stakes: the alternative to compliance is “failure.” So often acts of love can look, in the eyes of the world, like failure. So there’s your other Christian angle on the play, if you want it.

Play runs through January 27.

About Eve Tushnet

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