To call playwright Thomas Bradshaw a "provocateur" is to make a serious understatement. His last show in New York, Intimacy (2014 with the New Group), soaked the front rows of the audience in simulated bodily fluids. While his latest, Fulfillment (now making its New York debut at the Flea Theater), isn't as viscerally revolting, Bradshaw's mélange of race, power, and ambition will leave more than a few audience members feeling queasy.
From the vantage point of the average American, our protagonist Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) has everything: a well-paying job at a prestigious law firm, an exciting sex life, and a $1.5 million apartment in one of Manhattan's coolest neighborhoods. The only problem is that Michael doesn't live in average America, but the land of unquenchable greed. "You should be living in a five-million-dollar apartment," fellow lawyer and romantic interest Sarah (Susannah Flood) tells him, positing that the only reason he's 40 and not yet a partner is because he's black. Senior partner Mark (Peter McCabe) insists that Michael hasn't been passed up for being black, but for being an alcoholic. He's willing to reconsider his position if Michael lands a multi-million-dollar account with a famous basketball player (Otoja Abit). Sarah tries to help Michael kick the habit by meditating with him between sessions of violent kinky sex (choreographed with utmost realism and nudity by Yehuda Duenyas).
Even with everything he has, Michael can't seem to concentrate in his new home: His prickly upstairs neighbor Ted (an absurdly vindictive Jeff Biehl) constantly blasts heavy metal while his daughter runs amok. Following a confrontation, Ted starts rolling a bowling ball across the hardwood floors. "I paid 1.5 for this place," he shouts. "That should give me the right to have peace in my home." Has he read the condo bylaws?
Outwardly, Bradshaw's play exposes the folly of stuffing millionaires with giant senses of entitlement into tiny shoeboxes and stacking them on top of one another. Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge crafts Michael's shoebox with subtle suggestion: Empty bottles of top-shelf liquor occupy space on the upstage wall next to other props and costume pieces. The versatile set easily transforms into a host of other spaces through the use of furniture and a doorframe on castors, which the performers manipulate with seamless efficiency.
Ethan McSweeny's unrelenting production churns forward as Bradshaw's short, cruel scenes cut from one to the next. The tone has a lot in common with Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, which gives the similar sensation of being on a conveyor belt: This is especially true with Mikhail Fiskel and Miles Polaski's manic sound design, which interpolates the clamor of a sleepless city (a taxi horn, a cash register, a coffee maker) into a jazz improvisation; it is the ambient noise of us cogs grinding in the machine, making it up as we go along. But while Treadwell's 1928 expressionist drama told the story of a loser in the system of American capitalism, Michael is by all reasonable measures a winner. Still, Bradshaw makes it clear that getting to this place has made Michael an alcoholic and getting further will require him to become a success-addicted monster.
Flood plays his Lady Macbeth with a determination that is simultaneously cruel and blasé, igniting the flint of his ambition. "I have some tampons in case you need one to put in your vagina," the feminist meditation junkie whispers into Michael's ear. Flood's unsettlingly dead-eyed portrayal brings to mind playwright Charles Ludlam's adage, "You are a living mockery of your own ideals."
In fact, all the white people in Fulfillment are, to varying degrees, hypocritical and ghoulish. Mark seems to relish combat with his ex-wife (smugness drips from McCabe in this role). Michael's best friend, Simon (Christian Conn, both bro-ish and pathetic), has the gall to lecture others about infidelity when he's cheating on his wife. Shockingly, Simon and Sarah both feel comfortable enough to call Michael an "Uncle Tom" for the abysmal way he treats waiters. One doubts they would have an equally colorful label for a white friend who sends his fish back with a side of attitude.
For his part, Akinnagbe (best known for HBO's The Wire) convincingly portrays a highly motivated and deeply flawed man. He has the uncompromising standards of an exceptional individual who wasn't born into wealth and privilege, but clawed his way there. He's utterly unforgiving of those who cannot do the same, which would make him irredeemable in the eyes of many audience members if Akinnagbe didn't give such a sensitive, multilayered performance.
Of course, Bradshaw has never seemed particularly interested in creating "likable" characters: His 2007 play Purity follows a couple of college professors who pay a poor Ecuadorean man for the privilege of raping his daughter. In many ways, Fulfillment is a far more troubling play than that incredibly sensationalist (and easily dismissible) work. While Michael and his circle exist in a heightened reality, we can recognize aspects of our own personalities in each of them: the drive to achieve, the allure of self-destruction, and the instinct to obliterate the enemy. We're not dispassionately observing this urban jungle from a distance; we're living in it, and it is terrifying.