The Lake Worth Playhouse’s acclaimed Black Box series is back until this February 9th with a quietly stirring production of Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler, which premiered off-Broadway in 2017. The play’s title does double duty, serving as both a literal description of the corporate warehouse it revolves around and an ironic nod to a set of characters who seem incapable of fulfilling their own — or each other’s — emotional needs. This aptly encapsulates the two major themes of the play: nigh-inescapable human dissatisfaction and the potential for capitalism to deepen that dissatisfaction.
Economic considerations play a major part in the plight of at least three of the play’s four characters: couple Alex and Madeline, who have left their cosmopolitan New York lifestyle so that failed musician Alex can serve as a low-level manager of the titular New Mexico center; and Suzan, an aging hippie who charms Alex into hiring her as an “associate” despite the fact that she is clearly physically unfit for the job. She endures the indignities of employment at this “fulfillment center” in an attempt to earn enough money to fix up the car in which she is currently living, despite the fact that the strenuous tasks the job requires worsens her excruciating back and knee pain.
Meanwhile, Madeline, who feels uniquely out of place in her rural surroundings — largely due to her race — grows increasingly dissatisfied and emotionally isolated in her stagnant work-from-home position. Yet she’s far from the only one who feels trapped; even nominally powerful center manager Alex seems little more than a slave to corporate circumstance. He is frequently berated by Madeline for his failure to take his position seriously enough to stand a chance at advancement and so harshly judged by his own superiors that it precludes almost any expression of humanity.
For instance, Alex cannot let Suzan give him a neck massage or even have lunch with him without being wary of inciting the ire of his own higher ups. Then, when she seems to be bringing down his “numbers” he is all-but-forced to fire her —a happening so inevitable it scarcely deserves a spoiler warning. Both are only cogs in the same soulless machine.
Suzan and Madeline are linked not only by their shared connection to Alex but their shared connection to the play’s fourth character, a middle-aged carpenter named John who first comes off as affably awkward but eventually reveals a darker side. Much to the credit of Koogler’s writing, however, not even the occasionally misogynistic and vaguely menacing John comes across as a truly unsympathetic character.
Though he briefly becomes hostile towards Madeline in the face of her romantic rejection, his aggression seems to come from a place of pain and disempowerment rather than actual malice. Like Suzan’s own advances towards the significantly younger and uninterested John, his desperation for Madeline to like or even acknowledge him serves to make him look far more pathetic than dangerous.
During his clumsy, drunken appeals to her and many other uncomfortable moments, the Stonzek theatre’s small playing space creates an almost unsettling sense of intimacy; even when Fulfillment Center’s characters are at their most vulnerable, it’s almost impossible to distance yourself from their humiliation. And fitting to the play’s desolate, minimalistic emotional atmosphere, the only non-chair props I can remember are a steering wheel, a few bottles of alcohol, and some cookies.
Director Charlotte Otremba adeptly manages a superb cast, who skillfully navigate their characters’ trying circumstances. Nani Edry imbues Alex with an innate likability and good-natured sincerity, while Monica Harvey’s spunky and confident Madeline is both humorous and heartfelt.
Brenda Aulback’s Suzan shines during her character colorful reflections on youthful days long past and delivers an impressive amount of raw emotion when Suzan’s circumstances call for it. However, though Russell Kerr’s John is chilling when simmering anger comes to a boiling point, his portrayal perhaps could’ve used more of the ungainliness that those around him find so off-putting in the first place.
Though deviations from conventional dramatic structure aren’t always a downside and the relative lack of action didn’t have much impact until after that play’s conclusion, Fulfillment Center may have left a more powerful impression if its workplace indignities had had more obvious and lasting consequences for its characters, as in more notable works that explore capitalism’s sinister side like Death Of A Salesman.
Instead, Fulfillment Center comes to a somewhat abrupt end after a little over an hour with only vague hints that its characters are much different at the end than at the beginning. However, an excellent ensemble, thought-provoking moral quandaries, and plenty of heart still make the production a plenty fulfilling one.