There is more explicit sex in director Ethan McSweeny’s American Theater Company production of Thomas Bradshaw’s “Fulfillment” than any show you’re likely to have seen. Unless, that is, you frequent locations outside the usual purview of this publication or seek out voyeur-oriented entertainment of a less serious nature than the latest in Bradshaw’s highly provocative series of dramas about the perils of intimacy; the complexity of being an African-American in the allegedly modern, allegedly enlightened world; and the ubiquity of self-loathing, loneliness and desperation among affluent, amply educated urban professionals.
Given the intimacy of this particular Chicago theater, and the very striking set by Brian Sidney Bembridge that uses a wide, shallow performance space in front of audience members seated in a small number of very long rows, the shock value of the plethora of naked, carefully angled genitalia on display only is increased by their proximity to the paying customer.
In a couple of memorable sequences — memorable even to a critic who feels like he has, over his misspent years trolling Chicago theater, seen every live theatrical simulation of sexual congress that could possibly exist in the mind of director and playwright — the front rows are literally inches from action created with the aid of a dedicated “sex choreographer.” That would be Yehuda Duenyas, whose very Twitter-friendly program credit was created especially for this production — which arrives in Chicago after being first staged at New York’s Flea Theater earlier this fall, with the same creative team but a different cast.
Duenyas’ work is crafted presumably with the hope that this may become a growth industry for this enterprising gentleman, laudably adept at the manipulation of physiology and quite staggeringly skilled at obscuring the simulation part of sexual simulation, but hardly needing to fabricate adjacency. Not in this show, where the actors, notably Stephen Conrad Moore, Erin Barlow and Jason Bradley, clearly have decided that if one is going to go for it, then go for it one should.
Fair enough. Sex in the live theater is far more difficult to pull off than sex on screen — one is far more likely to exit the show in one’s head and start worrying about the actors — and the sex in “Fulfillment” took some guts to perform, has a good deal of narrative complexity and is, given the themes of the play, laudably un-erotic.
It is one of the better aspects of a very so-so production of what I think is an excellent play by one of America’s most audacious scribes. (Bradshaw is based in Evanston and teaches playwriting at Northwestern University.) The problems with the show have nothing to do with the human body — but far more to do with human vulnerability (or the lack thereof), the prevalence of stasis over the theatrical imperative for change and movement, and the lack of a good-old-fashioned emotional connection, riven by need.
What is this play about? It is the story of a man who recalls both Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck” and Ayad Akhtar’s Amir, the central character in the play “Disgraced.” Bradshaw’s Michael is a 40ish lawyer (Moore), successful enough to be one of the highest paid associates at a fancy Gotham law firm and in a position to drop $1.5 million on a 750-square-foot apartment, but not successful (or white) enough to make partner. As with “Disgraced,” “Fulfillment” is primarily concerned with the central character’s undoing. Michael’s problems, and his exciting sex life, begin when he meets Sarah (Barlow) a colleague who first asks to be spanked in the stairwell by a lover she doesn’t care to invite through the door, but who eventually becomes involved intimately in Michael’s emotional and professional life, trying to get him to stop drinking, harness his ambition and maybe even fulfill his destiny.
Booze is an element of Michael’s anger, which leads him to an unwise confrontation with his boss (Scott Olson) and, most problematic of all, an escalating conflict with Ted, his annoyingly loud neighbor upstairs, played by Jeff Trainor.
In essence, “Fulfillment” is a portrait of a man hitting his head, really hard, on the ceiling of the actions of others and his own limitations, the latter being mostly, but not entirely, a consequence of the former. Bradshaw’s protagonist is a deeply flawed man, but the play relies on us caring about him, and maybe seeing an element of ourselves in his struggle.
That requires more vulnerability than Moore, who is overly flat and mono-emotional, is willing to show.
Barlow is more successful, and unstintingly intimidating, which is a good thing. But she and her director struggle to reconcile the two sides of her admittedly reactive character, which requires her to go from freezing cold (an anonymous beating in a stairwell) to warm empathy (“I’ll take you to Alcoholics Anonymous”) and then back to the refrigerator for a dalliance with her guy’s best friend (Bradley).
That’s a lot for an actress to track, and this is not the fullest portrait of a professional woman in the history of dramatic literature (Bradshaw is interested in Michael). Still, that’s the assignment. Alas, the changes are not all easy to believe, for it feels as if Barlow, to do all the things she has to do in this play, has not tapped into the other part of her skills, aka her soul. It was the director’s job to better help her.
Nor, for that matter, does McSweeny help make clear what motivates the very stagey, nasty neighbor. Certainly, we see his actions though Michael’s eyes, but he also has to make logical sense in his own terms.
All that said, McSweeny’s production is dynamic, visually imaginative and never dull for so much as a second, and it does have its moments of enlightenment (Mikhail Fiksel and Miles Polaski’s sound design is a sensual feast). But ultimately, neither the staging nor the performances seem to feel enough nor need enough, nor do they seem sufficiently willing to go on a clear journey together. Therefore, this first production captures only half of Bradshaw’s worldview — the cold, shell-shocked, anonymous-coupling, do-what-you-gotta part, but not the aching human need for actual, functional congress, which is a theme of all the Bradshaw plays I have seen.
Go see it by all means — it is a most stimulating new play. But especially with a script this shocking, this honest, about what we do to each other with our bodies and our distrust, the crucial job of the interpreters is to show us the heart that longs with every gulp and gasp.