'Fulfillment Center': Theater Review
Frederick Weller and Deirdre O'Connell appear in Abe Kogler's drama about the intersecting lives of four working-class people in New Mexico.
Playwright Abe Koogler seems to have an affinity for the sort of hard-pressed, working-class Americans who — recent plays like Lynn Nottage's Sweat notwithstanding — are too rarely the focus of contemporary drama. Such characters are at the heart of Kill Floor, seen a couple seasons back at Lincoln Center, and again in the playwright's new effort, receiving its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. Unfortunately, Fulfillment Center, while featuring many evocative moments, fails to cohere into a satisfying whole. Despite terrific performances from its four-person ensemble, the play just spins its wheels before ending so abruptly that we’re not sure it has.
The punning title refers to the New Mexico shipping hub for a giant online retailer — think Amazon — where sixtysomething Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell) is applying for a job in the opening scene. A financially strapped folk singer driving cross-country and temporarily stranded after her car broke down, Suzan is forced by the center’s young manager Alex (Bobby Moreno) to demonstrate that she can keep up the necessary fast pace … without running. He also delivers the company line, telling her in robotic fashion, “New Mexicans depend on us to make their holiday dreams come true.”
Alex is soon revealed to be under no small amount of stress himself, as demonstrated by his breaking into sobs while Suzan gives him a brief neck massage. Part of the reason is his uneasy relationship with longtime girlfriend Madeleine (Eboni Booth), who has just relocated to New Mexico and is clearly unhappy about it. She’s willing to stay with him for six months before their planned move to Seattle, but she’s not so willing to accept his awkward marriage proposal.
Madeleine’s dissatisfaction with the relationship becomes further evident in a subsequent scene in which she goes on a date with John (Frederick Weller), whom she met online. The encounter turns out to be extremely uncomfortable. This carpenter is so socially awkward and quietly menacing, in fact, that Madeleine tells him he must either be a serial killer or “one of those Rain Men.” Another scene depicts John meeting Suzan at the trailer park in which they’re both temporarily staying, with the obviously attracted older woman suggesting that he join her on the road.
While several of the play’s individual scenes resonate with tension and humor, they don’t add up to anything significant. They feature incisive and often amusing dialogue, but they fail to advance the narrative significantly or, more problematically, provide much character insight. We never learn the back-story of the relationship between Alex and Madeleine, or exactly why she’s so unhappy now. And John remains as much an enigma to us as he does to the other characters, at one moment delivering such self-pitying pronouncements as “I’m the oldest I’ve ever been,” and elsewhere referring to women with vicious expletives. And other than in its amusing opening scene, the play never explores its workplace setting in any illuminating way.
Nor is the production anything to look at, with director Daniel Aukin staging the proceedings on a narrow platform in the center of the theater, adorned with only a few folding chairs. More annoyingly, he has the actors not involved in a scene sitting on either side of the stage with their heads down, resembling schoolchildren exiled to a corner after misbehaving.
The performers do as well as can be expected with their ill-defined roles: O’Connell is comically endearing as the vulnerable Suzan; Moreno mines his character’s pathos for all its worth; Booth makes Madeline’s sassiness tartly funny; and Weller manages the difficult feat of making John simultaneously amusing and scary. But their efforts are not enough to make Fulfillment Center remotely fulfilling.
Venue: NY City Center Stage II, New York
Cast: Eboni Booth, Bobby Moreno, Deirdre O’Connell, Frederick Weller
Playwright: Abe Koogler
Director: Daniel Aukin
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting designer: Pat Collins
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club