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Fulfillment: Theater review by David Cote
If we handed out stars based solely on scenes that were probably awkward to stage in rehearsal, Thomas Bradshaw’s new play might rate four (lots of ultra-realistic sexy time). Alas, there’s more to judging shock theater, just as there’s more to provocation than writing graphic sex or jokes about racism and pedophilia. An idea would be nice. Or elegant dialogue. How about a hero who has more than two speeds—regular dude or drunk, coke-addled narcissist?
Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is a moderately successful African-American lawyer with a supportive girlfriend, Sarah (Susannah Flood), an outrageously noisy upstairs neighbor (Jeff Biehl) and a drinking problem. (Cocaine appears late, presumably to augment Michael’s self-destructiveness.) Sarah helps Michael stop drinking through meditation, and his high-handed boss (Peter McCabe, briskly unctuous) promises to make him a partner if he stays sober. But constant noise from above drives Michael to distraction, and before you know it, he’s swigging Johnnie Walker from the bottle while staring at Internet porn and avoiding Sarah.
After being produced for nearly a decade, Bradshaw’s playwriting approach is fairly well established: cheerful but wooden dialogue, characters acting on their worst impulses, schematic plots and a refusal to judge. The plays are usually bracing and funny, and Bradshaw truly has his own style. Sometimes the transgression coincides with substance, as with 2011’s multilevel Burning. But more often, it’s a formula: human ids unleashed for cringe comedy and cheap thrills. Fulfillment is basically an urban dramedy slathered in Bradshaw sauce.
It’s an interesting game the writer plays: daring us to demand either better writing or more complex ethical puzzles. On the one hand, why on earth should he moralize? The theater hasn’t been a meaningful platform for ethical instruction in decades, and the spectacle of depravity provides its own lesson. But Bradshaw does float a philosophical position; his characters observe rather on-the-nosely that you never know what people will do, given the right (that is, wrong) circumstances. We have terrible potential inside us. The sentiment is as banal as his characters are lurid.
At least Fulfillment gets a handsome and swift-moving production from Ethan McSweeny, and the cast is likable and very game, with Flood and Akinnagbe showing genuine chemistry (and heat) and Jeff Biehl coolly creepy as the neighbor from hell. As Bradshaw’s title implies, his protagonist is on a quest for real satisfaction—material, spiritual, erotic. We never know if he gets it, but I left wanting more.—David Cote
The Flea Theater (Off Broadway). By Thomas Bradshaw. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote