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Fulfillment Center

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 20, 2017

Eboni Booth and Frederick Weller
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The sad outweighs the funny in Fulfillment Center, at City Center Stage II at Manhattan Theatre Club, but my gosh, there's plenty of both. Abe Koogler's sad comedy, or funny drama, throwing four mismatched protagonists together at the New Mexico outpost of an Amazon-like monolith, points out the many downsides of America's increasing reliance on temporary employment, and suggests, without overstressing, the consequences of bad decisions. Boy, do these people make bad decisions. In a way, Fulfillment Center is about bad decisions.

Koogler plunks us down in an unappetizing stretch of Southwest scrub land, confining most of the action to a) the enormous package delivery facility that apparently fuels most of the local economy, and b) an ugly campground where some of the employees live, in tents or out of their cars. You have to imagine most of it; Andrew Lieberman's set design is barely there. It's just a runway that bisects the Stage II house, dividing the audience, plus a folding chair here, some traffic cones there. The cones are set up as a job test: If Suzan (Deirdre O'Connell) can pick them up within the time limit—without running, running isn't allowed—she's hired.

Suzan has a troubled history. So does everybody else. (Interestingly, though these characters have names, they're never spoken; you have to consult the program to know who they are. Is Koogler commenting on the depersonalization of a megacorporation-dominated society?) A former folk singer who had some success decades back, she was on her way to Maine when her car broke down, near the nameless package delivery entity—10,000 packages a day, three times that around Christmas—that's hiring for the holidays. In her early 60s, and cursed with back pain and an inability to focus on one subject at a time, she's broke, needy, alternately warmhearted and passive-aggressive, and constantly trying to laugh away her pain, physical and emotional. As a package "associate" (she hauls boxes around, that's it), she's a disaster, and that doesn't sit well with her boss, Alex (Bobby Moreno). He's in his early 30s and hired her against his better judgment. His gig is a six-month stint that's a tryout for a better job in Seattle, and he's not sure his MBA background adequately prepared him for it. He secured decent housing, though, and invited Madeleine (Eboni Booth), his girlfriend from New York, to share the adventure. She left a good job and friends and is trying to tamp down the resentment she feels, while staving off Alex's marriage proposals. Self-employed as a consultant, she works at home and drinks too much. And she has a propensity to cheat. Online, she meets John (Frederick Weller), a local carpenter who lives at Suzan's campground. (John is 42; Weller is 51, and could pass for 35.) He has a sweet and vulnerable side, one revealed in early encounters with Suzan, but also an unstable and menacing alter ego. One of those guys who excelled in his teens and then flamed out, he's aimless, possibly dangerous.

People who wouldn't ordinarily interact at all, but have been slapped together by the transient economy, they're rich characters, and Daniel Aukin's direction, rife with overlapping dialogue, mines their quirks expertly. He's big on physical distance: He'll put two people on opposite ends of the stage to accentuate their reluctance to connect. And he knows comedy. So many exchanges that might read as so-so on paper (Alex, proposing some kinky sex to Madeleine: "What should our safe word be?" Madeleine: "Uh, Stop?") reverberate and land beautifully, helped by actors who know how to subtly reveal and amplify character contradictions. Booth is really spectacular, conveying Madeleine's smarts, impatience, and messed-up priorities. So is O'Connell, whose Suzan is broken, desperate, and somehow appealing, despite having an often very annoying personality. Weller's John, given to frightening changes of mood amid the mumbling, is every Most Likely to Succeed high school senior who showed up at the 25-year reunion wasted and forlorn. Moreno's Alex, a less mercurial personality, is a relative island of stability among this troubled crew, though even he finally, memorably loses it.

Koogler leaves out germane details to these lives—what, exactly, did Madeleine leave behind back East? Why are Suzan and her sister, who lives nearby, so estranged?—but it works, leaving us to speculate and fill in the blanks. The ending's a non-ending, but nobody's happy—Alex and Madeleine seem reconciled, but you can't help but wonder how permanent it is, while Suzan may have done something really stupid, involving John. Four lonely people chasing their dreams and tripping over themselves: In this fulfillment center, where the bottom line rules and benefits are nil and the vulnerabilities of the transient economy are exploited to the max, fulfillment is the last thing you'll find.

Fulfillment Center
Through July 9
MTC Stage II at City Center, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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