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Theatre in Review: Fulfillment Center (Manhattan Theatre Club City Center Stage II)

Eboni Booth, Frederick Weller. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The title of Abe Koogler's new play couldn't be more ironic; it refers to one of those big warehouses from which goods purchased on the Internet are shipped. Fulfillment Center, the play, is a snapshot of American dissatisfaction. It's the new world of post-labor union capitalism, marked by a tattered safety net and canceled social contract, where anyone can work himself to death without achieving the basic necessities. To prove his point, Koogler artfully links together four lives -- in New Mexico, circa 2015 -- in a round robin of exploitation and desperate need. As a bulletin from a place where the bottom has fallen out of the American Dream, it makes a striking companion piece to Lynn Nottage's Sweat and Martyna Majok's Cost of Living -- the latter playing right next door at City Center Stage I.

Much of the success of Daniel Aukin's production is rooted in four first-rate performances. Deirdre O'Connell shines as Suzan, a former aspiring singer and onetime hippie, who has ridden a wave of bad decisions to a dead-end existence in Arizona, without money or prospects. Escaping an abusive relationship, she has hit the road for Maine, seeking out an ex-lover who has always reliably bailed her out in bad times. Her car dies in New Mexico, and, as the play begins, she is busily trying to convince Alex, the fulfillment center's young manager, that she can do the job. (Her plan is to work for six weeks or so, get the car fixed, and continue her journey.) Her employment test involves dashing around the stage, picking up orange plastic cones quickly, without running, which is forbidden by company policy. The sight of Suzan struggling to perform, while simultaneously trying to win over a skeptical Alex with her cheerful chatter, says plenty about just what sort of workplace this is.

Bobby Moreno's Alex is a classic portrait of a middle manager in over his head. Until recently a New Yorker, he has been sent to New Mexico, allegedly for six months, by his new corporate employer; in fact, he is on trial as much as Suzan. (He was let go from a start-up business in New York, an episode that has shaken his confidence.) Much of Fulfillment Center focuses on the constantly shifting line between Alex and Suzan, with Alex using her as a confidant for his personal troubles even as he warns her that she isn't making her numbers.) Some of the play's most poignant moments feature Suzan, struggling with back pain, cheerfully, garrulously insisting that she will do better.) Much of Alex's unhappiness stems from problems with his girlfriend, Madeleine (Eboni Booth, giving each line of dialogue a sharply honed edge), who has arrived from New York with her teeth gritted. Alex, trying to talk up New Mexico, tells her about the local art galleries; she snaps back that they probably contain such treats as "the world's best collection of dogs playing poker." Alarm bells are heard in the very first scene, when Alex produces an engagement ring and Madeleine pushes back so ferociously that you have to wonder what they are doing together.

In truth, Madeleine is the most underwritten of the four characters -- the script is extremely vague about her career -- and her treatment of Alex is so borderline cruel -- in one scene, she more or less tells him that he had better make a success of his new position, because she has no time for losers -- that at times it beggars belief that she has thrown over her life to be with him in New Mexico. Her most questionable decision involves her extended flirtation with John, an out-of-work carpenter, whom she picks up on the Internet. Is Madeleine acting out to drive Alex away? It's never clear, but, as played with hints of mystery and menace by Frederick Weller, John is a more-than-worthy sparring partner for Booth's Madeleine. Their final encounter, with its rape fantasy undertones, crackles with tension, leaving us wondering just how far these two will go.

As it happens, John has also been befriended by Suzan -- both are sleeping in their cars in the middle of the New Mexico winter. When her future at the fulfillment center goes south, and following an unexpectedly ugly encounter between him and Madeleine, John and Suzan decide to flee in his car to Maine -- a quixotic prospect, as they quickly learn.

With Fulfillment Center and his previous work, Kill Floor, Koogler has staked out his own dramatic territory, inhabited by men and women whose lousy factory jobs drain them without offering anything like security or a decent paycheck. They are watched over by managers who mouth the business buzzwords of the day with little or no enthusiasm, clearly feeling as stuck in their lives as the workers they supervise. Kill Floor, which had its moments, dragged, never rising to a proper climax and leaving too many plot lines dangling. Fulfillment Center is as spare and elliptical as a New Yorker short story, but each scene is loaded with unspoken tensions, and its unsparing view speaks to the moment we're in: I'm betting that you won't soon forget the final image of O'Connell, kneeling on a highway at night, crying tears of terror and despair.

Aukin's design team has worked in a similarly economical way. Andrew Lieberman's set consists of a narrow, raised deck made out of processed wood, adorned with the bare minimum of props; for a second, I thought I was at a revival of Heisenberg, which played in the same space with a similarly spare design. It's an appropriate choice, however, and Pat Collins' lighting facilitates instantaneous scene changes, ensuring there isn't a wasted second. (Working in a functionally bare space, Collins also creates some strong day and night contrasts.) The costumes, by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, are eminently suited to each character, and Ryan Rumery contributes a variety of sound effects, including music from a jukebox and highway traffic.

Fulfillment Center is a small, tightly focused drama, and Aukin's direction makes it compellingly taught. Even more compelling -- especially for audiences right now -- is its depiction of people trying to get by in a system where the only metric of their value is how much they can produce. You have to make your numbers, or you're out. And if that happens, there's nothing to catch you if you fall. The question buried in every line is, Whatever happened to the land of opportunity? -- David Barbour

(5 July 2017)

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