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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
In Fulfillment, directed by Ethan McSweeny at The Flea's upstairs theater, Thomas Bradshaw explores that age-old question of what will make a person happy. Bradshaw's reputation as a provocateur is well documented elsewhere (links to CurtainUp's reviews of his past plays appear below), but this may actually be one of his more conservative works, avoiding the intensity of taboo subjects that he has explored in the past.
That's a relative statement, of course, and those familiar with Bradshaw's work will easily recognize the playwright's touch. Most obviously, this play continues his streak of depicting graphic sexual encounters on stage, with sex choreographer Yehuda Duenyas's production bio noting that he "created this category of choreography specifically for Thomas Bradshaw's work."
Meanwhile, an advisory on The Flea's website cheekily warns, "This production includes flashing lights, violence, nudity, and sexual situations. Depending on your personal preferences, we apologize/you're welcome!"
As it happens, these sex scenes possess a realism missing from portions of the show's dialogue, which can feel too constructed. Several conversations or relationships aren't especially believable, and characters can become unwieldy when they're deployed for too many purposes. For example, Ted's motivation as Michael's chief antagonist is shaky from their first meeting, when he randomly accuses Michael of passing gas in the building's lobby. It seems likely that his ill-will is the product of racism, though nobody ever articulates that. We're also offered evidence that he might just be the typical New York stock version of the Disagreeable Neighbor.
Another problem is that it's particularly difficult to buy into Sarah's relationship with Michael, since she feels more like a device for his salvation, or his destruction, than a fully-realized human. Morally, sexually, and professionally, she moves with leaps instead of steps, but in all manner of directions. Her sense of morality contains deep contradictions, and while it's satisfying to see Simon ultimately call her out on such hypocrisies, they never quite make sense to begin with.
Even when the content is problematic, the production itself—The Flea's first under new artistic director Niegel Smith—compensates, owing in large part to McSweeny's laudable direction of his skilled, cooperative and committed cast. Everything glides with perfect pacing, while the staging uses the idiosyncrasies of the theater's configuration to full effect.
Scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge deserves credit for enhancing the staging with a sleek, sharply vertical set that fits nicely with the feel of the show. And composition/sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, working with Miles Polaski, contributes a cleverly-conceived soundscape during scene changes that initially sounds like gratuitous noise but reveals its meaning as the plot advances. (The sound design is also particularly vital in a show so focused on ambient noise.)
The sum total of these technical elements is a world that is noisy, overloaded, dismal, and sterile. This image is epitomized by Michael's new apartment, with its "chic hotel feel." And perhaps it is the state of this world that explains the actions of its inhabitants, contradictory and relentlessly distasteful as many (if not all) of them can be.
Fulfillment ends up being characterizing by a strong, affecting sense of skepticism towards the kind of radical material aspiration for which New Yorkers are infamous. But in many ways, the play possesses such power despite itself, and so it becomes a sort of case in point: just as Bradshaw's characters experience, what we're given isn't quite enough to leave us feeling fully satisfied.
Other Thomas Bradshaw plays reviewed at CurtainUp:
The Bereaved (2009)