Thomas Bradshaw is back at the Flea Theater with his new play Fulfillment, where he has returned to his lean and cool and mean style after the misguided expansion of his last play Intimacy, which suffered from some casting problems. Every review and press release for a Bradshaw play describes him as a “provocateur,” and that really just means that he is interested in sex and he writes about it honestly. His characters use sexual language that many people use in life, though most writers are too timid and afraid of offending audiences to put that language on stage. Bradshaw has no such fear. He is one of our most promising younger playwrights, and he probably has some major plays in him, and though he isn’t quite there yet with Fulfillment, his talent is plain to see.
Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is a black Manhattan lawyer who has reached the age of 40 without making partner at his firm. He has started seeing his co-worker Sarah (Susannah Flood), a deadpan, sexy girl who likes to be spanked, a fact that he relates in a matter-of-fact way to his best friend Simon (Christian Conn) at lunch. As they sit having their sushi and discussing Michael’s dirty foreplay with Sarah, Bradshaw catches a disturbing sort of corporate coolness in their tone. It’s like there’s some missing component to this locker room talk, a kind of dryness and alienation that Bradshaw sketches unerringly.
Sarah tells Michael that she thinks he is being held back because of his race, but when Michael confronts his boss Mark (Peter McCabe) about this, Mark tells Michael that he hasn’t advanced at the firm because of his drinking problem. And Michael does indeed have a serious drinking problem; when we next see him he is drinking Bombay Sapphire gin straight from the bottle (anyone who drinks gin straight is far along the road of alcoholism). Michael buys a new apartment and starts seriously dating Sarah, who says she will help him with his drinking and join AA with him. There’s a beautiful moment here when Sarah physically cradles Michael, getting down on the floor to do it, and this counts as a precious bit of tenderness in Bradshaw’s work, something that he should explore more often.
The main drama in Fulfillment is Michael’s war with his upstairs neighbor Ted (Jeff Biehl), a very sour and nasty house husband who we see deliberately clomping around in boots and dropping heavy things on the floor just to drive Michael nuts. Is Ted actually doing this, or is this just what it seems like to Michael? (The staging by director Ethan McSweeny makes this point teasingly unclear.) Bradshaw hews closely to a nagging sort of tone here most of the time, as if he were trying to find the source of the drama himself. Both Michael and Sarah are presented as well-rounded, complicated, troubling, three-dimensional characters, so that you can neither dismiss nor root for either of them because Bradshaw isn’t interested in that.
Bradshaw’s often-stated point of view in interviews is that people do bad things and usually don’t get punished for them, and the problem at the end of Fulfillment is that he has the character of Simon speak these thoughts of his when the action of the play has clearly gotten this across without any need to verbalize it. Bradshaw needs to resist stating the point of his plays in words, and he also should experiment and add some more tenderness and kindness to them, because that’s a part of life, too. Once he does this, he should be all set to write plays that are truly singular and first-rate.