“Fulfillment,” Thomas Bradshaw’s latest in-your-face play, which has opened at the Flea, offers much the same ironic moral lesson as the inspiration behind “Answered Prayers,” the title Truman Capote used for his posthumously published novel: “Answered prayers,” the saying goes, “cause more tears than those that remain unanswered.”
Just mentioning Bradshaw and Capote in the same sentence might cause the universe to implode. So explicit and vulgar are Bradshaw’s plays that they make even the foulest moments in Mamet feel like a scene from The Odd Couple. Bradshaw doesn’t just use four-letter words, he asks the actors to enact them. “Fulfillment” presents the most graphic sex scenes I have ever seen on a New York stage, with the exception of the last Bradshaw play I saw, “Intimacy,” which focused on amateur pornographers in the suburbs.
If Bradshaw’s signature X-rated touches feel gratuitous in “Fulfillment,” the play is nevertheless fulfilling in many ways– a well-acted (bravely acted!), smoothly directed, smart, at times funny, more often horrifying and ultimately thought-provoking glimpse into our pursuit of happiness.
As the play begins, Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a well-paid senior associate at a law firm where he has been working for nine years, is about to buy a hip new condo apartment in Soho, and has started an affair with a younger colleague at the office, Sarah (Susannah Flood), which he describes to his best friend Simon (Christian Conn) in lecherous detail.
It soon becomes clear that the very steps Michael has taken to find greater happiness result in the opposite. “Fulfillment” is a chronicle of one man’s relentless descent into hell on earth.
It would be a spoiler to go into much detail, but one example is such a classic New York story that it’s hard to resist mentioning. In a problem that many, many New Yorkers will find familiar, Michael’s perfect new apartment (albeit a bit small and overpriced) turns out to be downstairs from unpleasant neighbor Ted (Jeff Biehl), whose young daughter likes to stomp on the floor at 5 in the morning. Ted refuses to curb his daughter’s behavior nor put down the carpeting that is required by condo association rules. The escalation between Michael and Ted is true enough to New York living to be at times almost amusing.
But it turns ugly and surreal, one of a series of such excessively brutal reversals and betrayals that one could liken Michael to a modern-day Job (which Bradshaw adapted for The Flea several years ago.) But there is one crucial difference: Michael is not the completely upright and blameless figure of the Biblical Job. He has self-destructive personal problems, character flaws and off-putting attitudes.
Still, as with Job, we are left to wonder why Michael – and by extension the audience – is subjected to such cruelty.
There are several moments in the play that help us to ponder this question.
Michael justifies his rude behavior towards waiters because, he says, they no longer take pride in their work, which he did when he was a waiter. He observes:
“Everyone thinks they should be famous nowadays. No one is happy with the lot they’ve been dealt. Every bagger in the grocery store, the baristas at Starbucks, people who work in hotels, and garbage men. They all think that they should be on American Idol or America’s Top Model…”
Sarah gets Michael involved with her spiritual group, the kind that chants to attain inner peace and get what they desire. At one point, she tells him:
“A new house is not going to make you happy, a new car isn’t going to make you happy, neither is a new bathroom or a new kitchen, neither is sex or a relationship. Peace of mind comes from within. We can’t control our external environment. We have no control over the things that people do. The only thing we have control over is how we respond to the obstacles that are placed before us in this life. “
Is any of this true? Does our response really make any difference? Michael’s friend Simon doesn’t buy the philosophy that he calls “reap just what we sow or some shit like that”:
“All of us are feeling our way through this world day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, and it’s all a fucking shitstorm! No one can escape it! Rich, poor, good parents, bad parents, doesn’t matter! For some reason we’re all meant to suffer.”
For all his coarse confrontational theatrical style, and what appears to be his pessimistic world view, Thomas Bradshaw is not directly forcing us to decide which (flawed) character is correct. In “Fulfillment,” he is asking us, impolitely, to think about it.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
At The Flea
By Thomas Bradshaw; directed by Ethan McSweeny; sets and lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge; costumes by Andrea Lauer; music by Mikhail Fiksel; sound by Mr. Fiksel and Miles Polaski; fight choreography by J. David Brimmer; sex choreography by Yehuda Duenyas.
Cast: Otoja Abit (Delroy), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Michael), Jeff Biehl (Ted/Leonard), Christian Conn (Simon), Denny Dillon (Bob/Agent/Waiter), Susannah Flood (Sarah) and Peter McCabe (Mark).
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $15 – 105
Fulfillment is set to run through October 19.