Review: ‘Fulfillment Center,’ A Quietly Moving Character Study
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, June 21, 2017
There’s a long strip of a stage. A folding chair. And six orange cones.
But something is missing in the lives of the folks in the new Manhattan Theatre Club production Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler. Oh yes, fulfillment.
Koogler has the playwright’s great gift of writing character into every line. Even if these performances were not as flawless as they are, you would know these four very different people from the words on the page.
They don’t even need names; in fact only one of them is ever named in the course of the play. That’s Alex, a young man who has left New York City to become a supervisor of a New Mexico mail-order shipping facility. He is being tested, we learn. If he does well he will be promoted to a job in Seattle.
His girlfriend Madeleine has recently joined him, and her life is now as empty as the stage before us, as the desert setting, as the glass of wine that is just about the only other prop besides those orange cones. Madeleine is not happy to be in this middle-of-nowhere town, and it’s impossible not to wonder how long she’s going to stick it out.
Oh yes, the cones. They are there because Suzan, a down-and-out sixtyish former hippie, is taking a test for a job at the fulfillment center she desperately needs: She must pick up the six cones within a certain time. The task seems impossible—she can’t do it walking, she’s not allowed to run. But she pleads, and Alex has a soft heart—and heart that you know will be his undoing in this unforgiving job—and she gets the gig.
The fourth character is the “ugly-hot” man Suzan meets at the trailer park where her car has died. He’s a menacingly sexy, down-and-out carpenter who is living in his car. Like Suzan, he has a past. Like Suzan, we’re not sure he has a future.
There are also four metal folding chairs, which move on and off the runway-like stage. There are never more than two characters at a time on view, but the other two sit beside it, awaiting their turn. The long narrow space makes it difficult, if you’re sitting anywhere central, to have your eyes on both actors at the same time. And Aukin often keeps them as far apart physically as they are emotionally, so much audience time is spent head turning, like a tennis match. It’s a problem for the right reason—these performances are so uniformly excellent that you want to be able to see a character’s face, even when he or she isn’t speaking. This is a production that would benefit from a smaller, or perhaps shorter, space.
Despite the neck ache, it’s gripping drama, and Aukin creates a tension and sense of desperation that keeps you riveted on these four ordinary, tragic, frightened, and sometimes frightening people. There isn’t much in the way of plot—things happen, other things, happen, and it doesn’t add up to much (sounds pretty realistic to me). But the characters are crafted and played with extraordinary finesse, and you believe in their reality, their pain, their craving for connection, happiness…fulfillment…at every moment.
Fulfillment Center presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage II, 131 West 55th Street. Running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Through July 9, 2017. Written by Abe Koogler. Directed by Daniel Aukin; scenic design by Andrew Lieberman; costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting design by Pat Collins; sound design by Ryan Rumery. Cast: Eboni Booth, Deirdre O’Connell, Bobby Moreno, Frederick Weller.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Deirdre O’Connell (in background) and Frederick Weller (in foreground) in ‘Fulfillment Center;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.