I think I’m in love, irrespective of gender, generation, or ethnicity, with all four of the people in Abe Koogler’s Fulfillment Center, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II. The trouble is, I’m not sure if I mean the four enchanting actors onstage or the four adorably helpless characters Koogler has created for them to play. Daniel Aukin’s production takes place on a long, nearly bare, strip of stage (set by Andrew Lieberman), with the audience banked along it on both sides. The scene is New Mexico, and Pat Collins pours the Southwest’s harsh, assertive sunlight onto the daytime scenes. The bareness forces you to focus on the actors: The performance starts with a single folding chair onstage, and you may feel a sense of relief when, several scenes later, a second one is finally brought on, so that two characters actually get to sit down together.
The characters, all from elsewhere, are as isolated against the scenically sumptuous desert that surrounds them as the actors appear to be when each steps onto that long bare ribbon of stage. Alex (Bobby Moreno) and Madeleine (Eboni Booth) have recently arrived from New York. Alex has been given a job as a warehouse manager at the local “fulfillment center” of a giant online company (think Amazon), which, if he measures up, will lead to a more congenial posting in Seattle. Madeleine, who does her computer-based work at home on a laptop — its exact nature is one of many things Koogler leaves unspecified — has come along, with considerable reservations. The text never underscores the fact, but Madeleine is African American; most of New Mexico is not.
The play opens with Alex at work, giving a speed test to a prospective warehouse employee, Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell), an older woman. A classic talks-a-good-game loser of the Woodstock generation, Suzan clearly won’t make the grade, but it’s the holiday season, extra help is needed, and, in one of the many actions that show his nervousness and inexperience as a manager, Alex hires her anyway. Suzan, a drifter living in a tent on a local campground, later encounters John (Frederick Weller), another itinerant, who lives on the campground in his car. Via computer, John has already hooked up, sort of, with Madeleine, restless and lonely at home while Alex works his extra-long hours striving to make good. Neither encounter goes particularly well (few encounters in Fulfillment Center do): John, about whom we learn less than any of the other characters, has a problem articulating his thoughts, and an even greater one dealing with women, who tend to be lured by his looks (which Madeleine calls attractive “in an ugly hot way”) but dump him when they get bored with his intractably shut-down self.
In its quietly distraught manner, Fulfillment Center makes a true portrait of today’s Americans. Though full of good will and eager to connect, none of its characters fully knows how to communicate, how to share the give-and-take of human relations. Eager for love, they aim their need in wildly wrong directions, blurting it out at the worst possible moment. As with the people in earlier generations of plays set in the Southwest — some of Sam Shepard’s and John Steppling’s works come to mind — the eerie disconnect between person and place seems to enhance the individual’s internal dysfunction.
Koogler’s, though, is the new, computerized version of this old confrontation. He eschews Shepard’s side trips into the surreal — the new reality our semi-virtualized society has created is disorienting enough without adding a dream life to it. The empty contradictions of such phenomena as a giant warehouse where workers race around daily packing up other people’s consumer goods, all done by numbers, in direct contact with neither supplier nor purchaser; or a full-time job done on a laptop in the isolation of one’s home; or of a wayfarers’ camp where people linger for months but nobody is a permanent resident — these are like traditional desert wanderings robed in a new kind of electronic despair. It’s noteworthy that none of Koogler’s four characters displays any sense of family; only in the show’s very last moment does one of them phone a long-estranged sister. Home and family are abstractions here; displacement is the society’s nature. For Alex and Madeleine, who are younger, the story ends on a note of hope, albeit a twisty and doubtful one. Suzan, in her sixties, and John, in his forties, seem to be heading off on the proverbial road to nowhere.
That you feel a helpless sense of pitying affection for them all comes partly from Koogler’s terse, astutely turned dialogue, which encourages you to wince as you watch each of them take one well-meant, misinformed step over the verbal bounds of each successive situation. But an equal amount of your feeling is roused by Aukin’s four actors as they seize on this stark material with the eagerness of work-hungry acting-class kids who’ve just been handed a Chekhov monologue. And what a quartet they are: Booth, with her crisp comic sense tempered by a fierce vulnerability; Moreno, fervid and jumpy, his nerve ends visibly crackling; O’Connell — have I finally shouted her praises long enough to convince everybody this is one of our great actresses? — sailing effortlessly through her role while leaving whole volumes of its history visibly piled behind her as she goes; and Weller, taut, tall, taciturn, managing to convey that he contains equal volumes of experience without displaying any. Each of these performances alone would be an impressive achievement; the four of them together give this low-down, plainspoken play the transcendent effect of a great string quartet or a quartet of great opera singers. The Puritani quartet, the Budapest Quartet, the Koogler quartet. No wonder I think I’m in love.
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage II
131 West 55th Street
Through July 9