Playwright Thomas Bradshaw is an equal opportunity misanthrope with a tabloid mentality. In one way or another his principal subjects are race and morality (or immorality) in America. And as a determined shock jock – in a society so numbed by the sensational that it has become all but impossible to get a rise out of anyone or anything – he soldiers on, upping the ante in predictable ways at every turn.
Bradshaw’s latest play, “Fulfillment” – a co-production of New York’s Flea Theatre (where it debuted in September), and Chicago’s American Theater Company, where it opened Thursday, with Ethan McSweeny reprising his direction with a different cast – keeps its audience watching.
Of course it doesn’t take a genius to know that graphic sex scenes and violence, no matter how cringe-worthy, can finesse that. The irony is that these things quickly grow tedious and distancing. Not surprisingly, the play’s best scene finds a couple in ferocious fornication (“choreographed” by Yehuda Duenyas – talk about a “specialty”), only to be hilariously undone by a psychopathic neighbor’s purposeful and continual attempts to torment his new African American neighbor with a barrage of industrial strength noise. (Mikhil Fiskel’s musical scoring, and his sound design collaboration with Miles Polaski, could not be more inspired.)
When: Through Dec. 13
Where: American Theater Company,
1909 W. Byron
Tickets: $38 – $48
Info: (773) 409-4125;
Run time: 90 minutes
with no intermission
At the center of “Fulfillment” is Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore), the sole African American lawyer at a high-powered New York firm. Michael has just turned 40, and despite eight years of hard work he has not yet been made a partner. To make himself feel better he buys a $1.4 million condo in a SoHo loft that he can’t really afford (Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting design is pure downtown chic), and he begins to panic. Urged on by Sarah (Erin Barlow) – the only woman in the firm, who also has failed to make partner – Michael decides to confront his boss, Mark (Scott Olson). At their meeting, Mark bluntly tells him it is his serious problem with alcohol that has prevented him ascent.
Complicating matters in all this is that Michael has begun “dating” Sarah, a mousy, X-ray thin white woman with kinky sexual tastes whose preferences he describes (far too easily) to his best friend, Simon (Jason Bradley), a dentist with marital problems. Simon, not incidentally, is white.
Sarah takes Michael under her wing, pressures him into attending a chanting/yoga class run by Leonard (Jeff Trainor), a perfect chalatan, and encourages him to go to AA. She might seem like a bit of a savior, but of course this is far from a match made in heaven. And then there’s that crazy, manipulative, provocative upstairs neighbor, Ted (also played by Trainor), who clearly is a racist, and eventually uses his young (unseen) daughter to indict Michael in profoundly damaging ways. This subplot stretches belief beyond the breaking point, but it’s all part of Bradshaw’s game.
And there’s more, most notably involving Michael’s encounter with Delroy (a neatly polished turn by Justin Cornwell), the wealthy African American basketball star he is supposed to clinch as a client for his law firm. The two black men bond over their notably un-hip affection for Neil Young songs, and more destructive things as well.
As it turns out, Michael may be tormented, but in many ways he is the victim of his own flaws every bit as much as he is a victim of racism. And as it turns out, there really isn’t a single character worthy of empathy in “Fulfillment,” aside from the waitress played by Erika Napoletano (who does a brilliant, gender-flipping job in a trio of roles).
The actors here are caught in a trap. The play wants them to be “realistic” on the surface, but only to a point, for more often than not everything flips into the absurd, the obvious and the grossly exaggerated. To their credit, Moore and Barlow give it all they’ve got, and then some. Maybe we are just meant to laugh at it all, and agree that “people” are the problem. Or maybe Bradshaw is just plying us with sex-race-and status porn, and getting himself declared an important transgressive artist in the bargain. Your call.