According to popular lore, medieval maps used to contain the warning “Here be dragons’’ to denote unknown, and therefore dangerous, territory.
Perhaps a similar label should be affixed to Jaclyn Villano’s sharp-witted but lurid “The Company We Keep,’’ which makes “God of Carnage’’ look like a sedate game of bridge.
As with “Carnage,’’ Villano’s new play features two pairs of upwardly mobile parents whose initially civil encounter steadily degenerates into nerve-shattering combat. But “Company’’ goes to further extremes, and its quartet of 40-something characters are not strangers but longtime friends.
That means they have plenty of shared history, including a few seamy chapters whose details spill out during the course of an explosive afternoon. All of them have law degrees, too, so the dialogue has the strategic, hyper-verbal flavor of courtroom maneuvering and argumentation.
Villano, who recently emerged from Boston University’s graduate playwriting program, is a skilled writer, expert at ratcheting up the tension and the stakes. Director Elena Araoz maintains a headlong pace, and all four cast members deliver vividly etched performances. Your attention is unlikely to flag. But “Company’’ relies on plot twists that are more sensationalistic than illuminating. As revelation is piled upon revelation, the sheer quantity of toxins unloosed onstage starts to feel like authorial overkill.
When the play begins and we get a gander at a sleek, brightly lit home (by set designer Cameron Anderson) and at its fresh-scrubbed but tense inhabitants, we can guess that some kind of ugliness will eventually erupt. Theatergoers have learned not to trust shiny surfaces, whether of the design or human variety.
Ellie (Jessica Webb) and Harry (John Kooi) are preparing for a visit to their new house in Washington, D.C., by Greg (Bill Mootos) and Katherine (Marianna Bassham). Harry is on a one-year teaching assignment at Georgetown University’s law school, while Ellie, also an attorney, has become a stay-at-home mother to their 12-year-old son. Determined to keep up appearances, Ellie insists that Harry not mention the fact that the boy has been suspended for bringing pornography to school. “It’s been a slippery slope from the moment you let him quit T-ball,’’ she tells her husband.
Harry, meanwhile, is worried that Ellie will tell Katherine about Greg’s infidelity. There is reason to think Ellie is about to blow the lid off something, because she is clearly on edge. Her hair in a knot, her face set in a frosty mask, she bustles back and forth across the polished surface of their kitchen floor, with the clack of her high heels resounding like little gunshots. (The production makes effective use of silence-shattering moments throughout, punctuating and underscoring escalating tensions with, say, the crash of a dish).
It becomes a four-way game of cat-and-mouse after the arrival of Greg, a law professor at Georgetown who chairs the promotion and tenure review committee, and Katherine, an attorney for the Department of Justice. It turns out they have a favor to ask of their old friends Ellie and Harry, but it gets tangled up, to say the least, in a thicket of messy personal business. As that business is thrashed out by insinuation, accusation, and action, the play moves into very dark territory.
Mootos keeps us guessing about the enigmatic Greg: Is he as morally oblivious as he seems? Kooi’s Harry at first seems overmatched in this no-holds-barred group, but the actor persuasively shifts from passive-aggressive to forceful.
But the play pivots upon the competitive relationship between Ellie and Katherine. Webb’s Ellie burns with a kind of cold fire, while Bassham’s Katherine has a relaxed, live-and-let-live demeanor that conceals, for a time, her steely cunning. The clash of these opposing forces is the most compelling aspect of “The Company We Keep.’’
Ultimately, you wouldn’t want to keep company with any member of this foursome. Dragons might pose less of a threat.