By Samuel L. Leiter
It’s everyone for themselves in Thomas Bradshaw’s unfulfilling Fulfillment, now at the Flea in a production whose crisply effective staging by Ethan McSweeny isn’t enough to overcome the characters’ inconsistencies, the episodic plot’s implausibilities, and the sense that its scenes of sex and violence are there merely because that’s what one expects in a Bradshaw play. While no one goes so far as to use prosthetic penises squirting white liquid, as in his distressingly uncomfortable Intimacy (2014), what remains is a similarly non-arousing, pseudo-pornographic world of profane, crass, self-serving people. As for the sex scenes, it’s a mystery why “sex choreographer” Yehuda Duenyas was employed, unless McSweeny himself was embarrassed to handle these not especially original (or erotic) scenes himself.
Michael (Ghenga Akinnagbe) is a 40-year-old associate at a high-powered law firm headed by the oily Mark (Peter McCabe), where he’s the only black lawyer on the staff. He’s doing well enough to purchase a newly renovated $1.4 million apartment—albeit only 752 square feet—in SoHo. He has a best friend, Simon (Christian Conn), a married man, to whom he shares (in coarsely intimate detail) a kinky sexual experience with another lawyer at the firm, Sarah (Susannah Flood). Sarah riles up his ambition, telling him he’d be a partner by now if the firm weren’t racist. She convinces him to join her yoga meditation group, where the leader insists that anxieties can be eliminated by giving up masturbation, food gorging, and porn.
Michael demands a partnership from Mark, insisting that racism is behind his lack of a promotion, but Mark says it’s because Michael’s an alcoholic and must first get on the wagon. The now servile Michael declares he’ll join AA. When Sarah, whose father was a drunk, discovers Michael’s drinking problem, she transforms into a caring advisor, and the play drifts into lessons about yogic chanting and AA’s spiritual values.
We’re now one-third into a play about an up-and-coming black lawyer confronting the obstacles of alcoholism and potential racism, while learning to handle his sexually adventurous girlfriend. The gears shift sharply, however, and the plot turns into a melodramatic conflict with a deranged neighbor named Ted (Jeff Biehl) in the overhead apartment who, for unexplained reasons, seeks to drive Michael nuts by making as much noise as he can, although Michael thinks Ted’s little girl is responsible.
In the final hour, we watch Michael’s unlawerly confrontations with Ted; Sarah’s infidelity and Michael’s jealousy; Michael’s arrogance toward a classy restaurant’s waitress (Denny Dillon); his own mistreatment by his building’s lesbian president, Bob (Denny Dillon), a friend of Ted’s, who calls him a pedophile; Michael’s attempt to sign a superstar basketball player (Otoja Abit) as a client; Sarah’s shark-like response to Michael’s failure; a catastrophic accident that leads to a horrific act of revenge; and empty generalizations lacking follow-through on the meaning of happiness, people’s lack of respect for their work in an age where everyone seeks celebrity, the meaning of karma, and the ubiquity of suffering.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s spare set uses one long wall of the space, with the audience facing it in low-rise bleachers: we see a hardwood floor, a partial ceiling, a select few pieces of furniture shifted by the well-drilled actors, bookshelves at stage right, an overhead platform at left where Ted’s noisemaking can be observed, and a movable door on casters. A percussive score by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, aided by Miles Polaski, aids greatly in creating a feeling of intensity, but it’s pretty much wasted on a vacuous play for which a generally capable ensemble can’t provide fulfillment.
The Flea Theater
41 White Street, NYC
Through October 19
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).