Abe Koogler's new play is set in online retail purgatory.
Suzan's task is clear: She has to collect six orange cones spread out on the floor in a set amount of time, but she's not allowed to run. If she passes this test, she gets a job at a fulfillment center (a warehouse for a big online retailer where merchandise is shipped off to customers). Suzan (the ever-spunky and sympathetic Deirdre O'Connell) completes the task in time, but she does it by running, which goes against company policy. We get the sense that Suzan is a stopgap until a robot is cheap enough to take her job, which is all about hitting ever-faster performance goals without engaging in any sort of activity that might prove to be a liability (like running…or eating…or breathing).
This infuriating first scene of Abe Koogler's Fulfillment Center (now making its world premiere with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center) seems to portend a hard look at the human cost of our brave new economy of non-union labor and unforgiving metrics. It is a promise that remains disappointingly unfulfilled by the curtain call.
This is despite a strong first impression made by O'Connell and Bobby Moreno, who portrays Suzan's manager-to-be, Alex, like a marmot nervously paddling across the English Channel. Alex has just moved from New York to New Mexico with his girlfriend, Madeleine (Eboni Booth), for what he hopes will be a six-month gig. If he does well at the New Mexico fulfillment center, he gets a transfer to Seattle. If not…well, failure is not an option for Madeleine, who hates New Mexico and their cookie-cutter apartment near the highway.
At least they have a home, though. Suzan lives out of her car, which is currently stalled in a campground. That's where she meets down-on-his-luck carpenter John (a creepy Frederick Weller). As coincidence would have it, the strong and silent John also has a connection to Madeleine, a contrivance that would be forgivable if the playwright actually did something interesting with it.
After an enticing windup, Fulfillment Center fizzles out into a series of two-character scenes in which competent actors are asked to interrupt each other's lines in a vague approximation of real human dialogue. Details about the fulfillment center and the company that owns it (let's call it "Shmamazon") remain hazy and unspecific. "My metrics suck, my team is falling behind," Alex reveals, although we never learn what constitutes good metrics. This lack of detail makes it hard for us to invest in the drama, even though we know something crucial is at stake. Buried in Koogler's highly stylized patter lurks a much-sharper play dealing with the inextricability of class in 21st-century America and how a disposable consumer culture leads to the assumption of disposable people.
Frustratingly, that play gets hijacked by one about the strained relationship between Madeleine and Alex, two upper-middle-class millennials who went to elite colleges, are struggling to find respectable positions in the knowledge economy, and are probably more relatable to the majority of theatergoers. But "relatable" doesn't always make for better theater, and Madeleine's ennui about her looming unglamorous life in flyover country is a snooze compared to the story of a corporate machine that masticates the bodies of its workers and spits them out when they can't stuff cat food into UPS boxes fast enough.
At least O'Connell leaves us with something to chew on with her brave and vulnerable performance. Between the way she moves, the way she talks, and the way she dresses (costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter puts her in cute jeans with funky little designs on the back pockets), she could be someone's mom. She's an older woman trying to keep up in an intensely physical job so that she can get to the next place in her life (she wants to move to Maine), and her body is betraying even that modest ambition. Alex thinks she should just get another job, but how many employers are clamoring to hire a sixtysomething ex-hippie who lives in her car?
Director Daniel Aukin puts the actors and the script at the center of his minimal production. A plywood runway separates the two halves of the audience in Andrew Lieberman's traverse set, which seems designed for maximum confrontation. Aukin creates every location with just four metal folding chairs, allowing the scenes to flow effortlessly from one to the next. It would be the ideal setup for the kind of play that unrelentingly pulls us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of its theme. Sadly, Fulfillment Center only circles the drain.