Fulfillment (American Theatre Co): ATC Opens Up New Season and Bares All

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Reviewed by Tom Lawler

Set the scene: Fulfillment is the opening entry in American Theater Company’s Season 31, dedicated to the memory of  PJ Paparelli, ATC’s young artistic director who tragically died in a car accident this spring. Penned by Thomas Bradshaw, whose edgy oeuvre has netted both a Guggenheim fellowship and heaps of press,  Fulfillment is a co-world production with New York’s Off-Broadway Flea Theater.

What’s it all about: Michael (NYC-based Stephen Conrad Moore) is a 40-something African American attorney who’s just purchased a sleek Manhattan condo and started a risky, intoxicating romance with a young co-worker, Sarah (Erin Barlow). Egged on by Sarah, he accuses his boss, Mark (a splendidly paternal Scott Olson) of racism for not yet making him partner despite years of 90+ hour-work weeks. Mark counters that Michael’s alcoholism is holding him back as both his boss and Sarah try to help Michael conquer his demons. Or do they?

Stand-out performance: It’s a tie, as Moore and Barlow are exceptionally open and connected with each other in a play that, whew, features some of the saltiest dialogue exchanges and most risqué sex scenes I’ve ever seen on a stage. Fufillment is dedicated to Michael’s character arc as he seeks, well…, the play’s title should give you a big clue, while Barlow’s Sarah is saddled with quite a few lines that sound lifted from Al-Anon literature. The degree of difficulty here is steep, but Moore and Barlow make it work and are a sensational pairing.

Also, check out: Director  Ethan McSweeny (who also helped the premiere in New York) brings us an exceptionally stylish and propulsive staging. Kudos to McSweeny’s production team for a gorgeous set design from Brian Sidney Bembridge (Scenic and Lighting Design) and a driving percussion-based soundtrack from Miles Polaski (Sound Design). A door on wheels and a gleaming row of fluorescent tubes allow the crew to quickly shift locations (everything from a sushi restaurant to Michael’s office and condo) on a long, wide stage. Not only do some of the ensemble members double as an on-stage pit crew to either quickly dress or undress Moore and Barlow between scenes, but also they’ll often stay in the scene once the lights are back up as silent observers of some often intensely-pitched scenes.

More of this, please: For a play that seems engineered to shock, its deadpan humor also startles and keeps the audience nicely off-balance. Good example: Jeff Trainor’s hilarious portrayal of Leonard, a self-help guru who teaches yoga poses while admonishing his followers for sins including “gorging ourselves on food and pornography.”   

However: Considering some of its X-rated content, Fulfillment may not be ideally suited for staging at a theater as small as ATC. To wit, one of the Moore-Barlow pairings blocked out by Yehuda Duenyas (Sex Choreographer) that took place at the front of the stage may have been a little too much excitement for the first couple rows at my Sunday matinee performance. Would a movie like Last Tango in Paris or a book such as Tropic of Cancer be as effective as a play, or is this type of content more comfortably consumed a bit more indirectly?

Do this first: Pre-show drinks? Great idea. Ease into the evening with a cocktail at the bar in the warm and inviting Ms. Murphy’s Irish Bistro.

Do this after: With so many scenes featuring characters eating Chinese food or sushi, why not opt for a post-show bite at the exquisitely retro BYOB Cantonese spot Orange Garden located nearby at Irving Park and Lincoln?  Warning: Regardless of what you order you will be taking home leftovers.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

At American Theatre Co, 1909 W. Byron St

Playwright: Thomas Bradshaw

Director: Ethan McSweeny

Thursdays-Fridays at 8pm

Saturdays at 2, 8pm

Sundays at 2pm

Thru December 13

Tickets: $43-48

Buy Tickets at atcweb.org

Photo by:  Michael Brosilow

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