May 13, 2005
Villains don't believe they're bad guys. But in Norman Lock's unfailingly bleak "The Contract," now in a crisp premiere by the Laurelgrove Theatre Company, the heavy is shop steward/hit man Walt (Shaunt Benjamin), and he has a more nuanced perspective. "We're all filth," he pronounces at one point.
Walt pronounces a lot, in fact, in the course of his elaborate wooing of the chemical plant's new hire, Dave (Rob Tepper), a meek, shaggy innocent who seems powerless to resist. Sex, capitalism, politics—no topic is beyond Walt's all-encompassing, and unremittingly acid, discourse.
Lock should probably have kept a lid on Walt, because he—and the inexorable march to perdition he represents—dominate and determine "The Contract," to the exclusion of all other possibilities. We know too early that the hard-up Dave will succumb to Walt's poisonous, Mafia-style economic logic and that Dave's hopeful wife, Kathy (Nina Hauser), will be much the worse for it, no matter how she protests.
And we know she won't get much help from Walt's pliant, battered wife, Irene (Catherine Carlen), who matter-of-factly embodies the worst of suburban myopia, bigotry and complacency. There's just no upside in this portrait of small-town fear and loathing; new arrivals Dave and Kathy have no choice, it seems, but to sink into the polluted sludge.
The opening-night cast (which alternates with another cast) is extraordinary, under Jack Heller's finely shaded direction. But no amount of shading can add suspense to this downward spiral. "The Contract" is too much of a done deal.
"The Contract," Laurelgrove Theatre Company at the Hollywood Court Theatre, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood, inside the United Methodist Church. 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 29. $20. (323) 692-8200. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.