Thomas Bradshaw’s uneven comedy Fulfillment loves its incendiary devices—full-frontal nudity, on stage masturbation, graphic sex that nearly spills into the front row of the audience, taboo words, and accusations of racism or pedophilia bandied about casually. But while the play has its moments of unexpected amusement and is much more successful on the whole than Bradshaw’s last endeavor, Intimacy, it doesn’t quite achieve the trenchant satirical commentary that you suspect it’s aiming for.
Bradshaw focuses his gaze on highly paid New Yorkers who live in million dollar apartments but can’t figure out why they are unhappy. Worshiping a chanting guru, indulging in bottles of gin, snorting cocaine, or engaging in adultery are all temporary remedies for what ails this moneyed class. As they chase these false gods, Bradshaw leaves us to laugh at their foibles and wonder where happiness lies.
Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is a lawyer working 80 hours a week who has yet to make partner. He hooks up with his co-worker Sarah (Susannah Flood) who has a penchant for spanking and a zen-like calm about just about everything. She chalks up his lack of promotion to racism at their law firm. When Michael confronts his boss (Peter McCabe) about this this he’s informed it’s his alcoholism that’s the problem. Michael throws himself into 12-step recovery with Sarah’s help. But as he spends more time in his new fancy apartment, he discovers his upstairs neighbor Ted (Jeff Biehl) and Ted’s young daughter make a tremendous amount of noise—like a herd of elephants tap-dancing on a tin roof.
And so begins the comedy of tantrums, taunting, and intemperance. A battle of wills ensues between Ted and Michael over the apartment noise which escalates to extreme proportions. But it’s really a larger symptom of Michael losing control. Work, home, and his love life all start to spin. No matter how much the preternaturally chill Sarah preaches that “prayer and meditation” will address any of his problems, Michael cannot manage to keep everything in balance.
Bradshaw creates dialogue and situations that are filled with intentional inauthenticity. No one actually says the things Bradshaw’s characters say in real life and the leaps in logic are meant to be jarring (an awkward hug between Michael and his boss, leads the boss to say he hopes the Michael does not intend to “fuck [him] in the ass”, for instance). But rather than Fulfillment wholly existing in a satirical realm, Bradshaw’s world drifts between this heightened reality and a more grounded one. The issues the characters face, particularly with alcoholism and personal pain, are quite realistic. But as they bump up against the lampooning of religion, meditation, and self-help, dissonance is created. Though this is all done with purpose, with the stylistic imbalance, deeper meaning in the play feels elusive. The discord does not lead to deeper thought or interesting ruminations within the play or for the audience.
We’re not meant to feel for any one character exactly. Even the occasionally sympathetic Michael becomes less so. Slowly each character starts to act truly monstrously to the others. It does not take a lot of prompting for the characters to morph into self-interested piranhas. But that nihilism never feels revelatory.
Despite the vacillations of the play itself, Ethan McSweeny’s production is sharp and witty. Inventive lighting design (by Brian Sidney Bembridge) and sound design (by Mikhail Fiksel and Miles Polaski) punctuates and emphasizes the comedy. McSweeny takes great joy in staging Ted’s thumping around in a loft space adjacent to the stage, his sonic reverberations felt throughout the theater. We become immersed in the irritating pitter-patter of a child’s footsteps to hilarious effect. The cast commits wholly to Bradshaw’s unusual approach, but while all the performances are strong, Susannah Flood’s is a standout. Her lolling tongue and quizzical looks in one of the sex scenes in particular made me long for her to do more comedy. So even though the play might not land every punch and happiness is elusive for the characters, there are some pleasures to be found here.