ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Abe Koogler’s new play, “Fulfillment Center,” opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this year, but the play has especial resonance for an Albuquerque audience, as it takes place in New Mexico. This interesting and timely comic drama is currently playing at The Cell in a flawed but nonetheless engaging production.
Alex has moved from New York to New Mexico to temporarily manage a fulfillment center during the busy holiday season. His girlfriend Madeleine has followed him out, but as an African-American New Yorker, she is not keen on living in what she considers a desert wasteland in the middle of nowhere. She is lonely, not sure about her commitment to Alex, and as a black woman feels uneasy in New Mexico. Much hinges on Alex’s job performance; if he performs well, he will be promoted and they can move to Seattle.
Sixty-four-year-old Suzan gets a job at the fulfillment center when her car breaks down; she hopes to earn enough money to get to Maine, but her aging body is unable to conform to the grueling demands of the job. While staying at a campsite in New Mexico, she meets John, a quiet, lonely drifter recently dumped by the woman he loves.
This 90-minute one-act play progresses in a series of two-character vignettes as these four people try to connect and usually fail; fulfillment is clearly not something that can be manufactured and delivered, despite the motto of the fulfillment center.
Director Jacqueline Reid has coaxed excellent performances out of 3 of her 4 actors, but she unfortunately allowed Laurie Thomas to caricature the aging and emotionally broken hippie Suzan, the pivotal character of the play. Thomas is charged with the difficult task of embodying an eccentric over-the-top character who must nevertheless win the audience’s sympathy. Suzan is a vulnerable human being living under tremendous stress and the actor must find ways, sometimes with simplicity and subtlety, to project the character’s humanity. Thomas plays her in a farcical manner that robs the character of her human dignity. She should not be so much comic, as tragicomic; she should coax tears from us, as well as laughter.
The other actors are much more successful. In one of his best performances to date, Bruce Holmes captures the interior intensity of John with subtlety and economy. As one of my acting teachers used to say, “don’t just do something, stand there.” Holmes conveys his character’s pain and frustration most effectively in his still, quiet moments.
James Wagner is wonderful as the perhaps too patient lover and perhaps too tenderhearted boss Alex.
Finally, Lillie Richardson is outstanding as the hard drinking and sexually adventurous Madeleine, a complex and deeply ambivalent character.
Richard K. Hogle’s minimalist set design works well, especially the electric light evoking the Sandia Mountains, which serves as the ever-present background. Reid’s choice of music both before the show and between scenes was a delight, perfectly fitting for a show that references and plays the opening chords to Led Zeppelin’s classic “Stairway to Heaven.”
“Fulfillment Center” is playing at The Cell, 700 First NW, with an additional performance at the Kimo, through Nov. 18. Go to fusionnm.org or call 766-9412 to make reservations.