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A CurtainUp Review
Fulfillment Center
I'm getting the hang of it. Those buzzers are driving me a little crazy . . .reminds me of school somehow. . .gotta get to class! But I understand. They're necessary! Keep us on track. Everyone running around in there, little mice. . .it's fun. — Suzan, who at age 60 is not having an easy time convincing her manager at a New Mexico fulfillment center that she's getting the hang of —and even liking— the physically demanding job she desperately needs.
Fulfillment Center
Deirdre O'Connell & Frederic Weller (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Like his 2015 Off-Broadway debut play Kill Floor , Abe Koogler's Fulfillment Center is once again a less than upbeat, multi-generational portrait of American life. Curtainup reviewer Deirdre Donovan's description of Kill Floor as progressing much like a fugue with the parallel plots of various relationship playing out in counterpoint also fits his new play. So do its strengths and weaknesses

The Strengths: A formidably talented cast to forcefully flesh out their characters' hopes and insecurities . . . the way Daniel Aukin expertly steers the actors through multiple locations despite super economic staging to establish where we are in the New Mexico town in which the various duets play out. . . smartly written and often funny dialogue. . . an aptly realistic and symbolic title since two of the four characters work in an Amazon-like fulfillment center, while the fulfillment derived from job satisfaction, economic security and personal relationship has eluded all four.

Flaws: Since the characters are all grappling with the same basic issues of loneliness and uncertainty, the alternating one-on-one interactions tend to become repetitious and short of strong dramatic heft . . . while there's something to be said for ambiguity encouraging audiences to use their imaginations and keep thinking about what they've seen, there's something disappointing about the play's abrupt, inconclusive ending. . . Though it's not hard to follow just where in each of the eleven scenes we're at, Andrew Lieberman's bare bones scenic design — a couple of folding chairs at the short ends of a runway stage— is so minimal that this sometimes feels like a workshop.

Koogler opens his play with a devastating depiction of a job try-out by down-on-her-luck Suzan (Deirdre O'Connell, adding another magnificent performance to her resume as an aging beauty with a history of a go-nowhere folk singing career and love affairs). It's painful to watch her trying to prove herself fit to handle the physically demanding job of getting the merchandise to the customers fast as lightning. As played by Bobby Moreno, Alex, the manager in charge of the hiring process, is a potent mix of ambition, awkwardness and insecurity.

We're seeing the play in 2017, just two years after its 2015 time frame. If Koogler had set it today, few people of any age would be needed to rush around like mice to process merchandise shipments. You see, robots are already handling the thousands of packages shipped from fulfillment centers of companies like Amazon. Nor do those robots need more managers like Alex to keep them up to speed.

But this play's focus isn't really on automation's systemic assault on jobs. It is that, but more importantly, it's about Americans for whom no facet of the American Dream has materialized. Thus, for Alex, leaving New York and adjusting to the fulfillment center's physically and emotionally stressful environment is just another step along the increasingly bumpy infrastructure his life.

Life isn't any more fulfilling for Alex's long-time girl friend Madeline (Eboni Booth, who makes the most of having been given one of the play's funniest scenes). She hates her working from home job, and though she's left New York to join Alex in New Mexico, she now feels too alienated and conflicted to marry him.

While the temp job at the titular fulfillment center connects the Suzan/ Alex and Madeline/Alex situations, it's John (a both vulnerable and charismatic Frederick Weller), who is the overall connecting link. At 42, he's also midway in age between the other characters. And so, Madeline, who he meets through an online dating site, finds his being older than his profile a cause for wary hostility. On the other hand, to Suzan he's a young and incredibly appealing friend to ease the loneliness of the campground where both are staying (she until she can get her car fixed and move on, he because the woman with whom he's been living tossed him out).

Though there's not a whole lot of drama in the eleven scenes that alternately feature two of the characters, Kooger does have a good eye and ear for the nuances of these relationships. Happily, the actors ably tap into the nuances in the shifting dynamics throughout. And while none of Koogler's characters are happy with their lives, he's written some very amusing dialogue to brighten, if not their lives, our witnessing them.

Though it's understandable that Madeline is uncomfortable with her decision to come to New Mexico, her dealing with that discomfort by going on an internet arranged date is less so. But no matter. That meet-up in a bar is the play's comic highlight. Madelines sarcastic interrogation of John and his Gary Cooper-ish responses are hilarious. However, their second meet-up in Alex's apartment is more chilling than funny.

Unfortunately, even at just 90 minutes, it becomes increasingly clear that none of these situations will take us anywhere very different than the beginning. There's a vague hint that Alex and Madeline may just extricate themselves from their problematic work and personal situation, but don't count on a happy or satisfyingly conclusive ending.

To sum up, Koogler is to be commended for his sharp-eyed exploration of the modern day American experience. While robots instead of people may be taking over jobs in fulfillment centers and factories, no robot can ever replace the very flesh and blood humanity of his troubled humans.

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Fulfillment Center by Abe Koogler
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Cast: Eboni Booth (Madeleine), Bobby Moreno (Alex), Deirdre O'Oonnell (Suzan), Frederick Weller (John).
Sets: Andrew Lieberman
Costumes: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting: Pat Collins
Sound: Ryan Rumery
Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
The Studio at Stage II - Harold and Mimi Steinberg 131 West 55th Street
From 6/06/17; opening 6/20/17; closing 7/16/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 18th press preview

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