How fulfilled you will feel at the end of Abe Koogler’s 90-minute drama, “Fulfillment Center,” now premiering at Manhattan Theatre Club-Stage II in Daniel Aukin’s ultra-minimal production, is likely a matter of pre-show expectations.
If you’re seeking an exploration of the downtrodden in today’s economy (a la “Sweat), you will be severely disappointed, even if the play’s setting is an Amazon-like fulfillment center somewhere in New Mexico. (The setting ultimately feels almost incidental.) Or if you like stories with neat-and-tidy endings, this one may not be for you either; while Koogler gives his well-drawn characters some development, and even a bit of closure, not all that much actually happens.
Conversely, if all you need is to spend time with a company of accomplished actors bringing their A-game to an admittedly slight script, you’re in luck. As usual, any evening spent watching the brilliant Dierdre O’Connell in action is the rare opportunity to view a master class. Here, the veteran actress is absolutely heartbreaking as Suzan, a 60-something woman stuck literally in New Mexico (after her car conks out), and figuratively in the past, where she had some minor success as musician in the 1970s.
A do-or-die type of gal, who exudes positivity and despair in equal measure, Suzan tries to turn her misfortune into something positive, first by talking her way into a grueling job at the fulfillment center, even though she’s physically unfit for the task. In part, she worms her way in through the misplaced kindness of manager Alex (a fine Bobby Moreno), who turns out to be just as ill-suited for this gig as Suzan is.
Secondly, she tries to strike up a romantic connection with the somewhat younger John (a brilliant Frederick Weller), a seemingly quiet carpenter living in his car in the same campground Suzan is inhabiting. In John’s case, still waters often produce tsunamis, a fact that both Suzan and Alex’s longtime girlfriend, the deeply troubled Madeleine (a rather too-unsympathetic Eboni Booth), each learn the hard way.
One of the play’s biggest problem is that Koogler asks us to invest in Madeleine and Alex’s relationship, which frankly doesn’t ring true. For one thing, they’ve been together for over 10 years, yet Madeleine freaks out when Alex proposes. And while it’s clear Alex has some self-esteem issues, Madeleine is written (and portrayed by Booth) as such a semi-abusive partner that I didn’t believe Alex wouldn’t have dumped her ages ago. (It’s hard to tell what to make of the fact that she’s African-American, other than that Koogler is right that she would seem doubly out of place in New Mexico!)
It’s nice after a Broadway season that sometimes relied on spectacle more than substance to see something as spare as “Fulfillment Center,” but less isn’t always more, either.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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