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A new drama at Manhattan Theatre Club explores the ever-growing economic divide
At Abe Koogler's new play Fulfillment Center, a wooden runway cuts MTC's Center/Stage II in half so that the audience sits on both sides. A few folding chairs provide the only additional scenery. It's a bit reminiscent of MTC's Heisenberg, at which some viewers grumbled about the seemingly absent design. If they do that at Fulfillment Center, too, Koogler is totally okay with it.
"To walk into a theatre where there is very little set, just a long wooden platform on which the actors are going to be doing the play, is a little disorienting maybe," he admits. "But also a little exciting." Besides, Koogler, whose previous play Kill Floor centered on a slaughterhouse, likes upending expectations.
Fulfillment Center takes place at a New Mexico shipping hub for a large Amazon-like company. It focuses on the professional and personal pressures plaguing two employees: Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell), a woman in her sixties with few other job options, and her supervisor, Alex (Bobby Moreno), a thirtysomething guy who hopes a good showing at this outpost will provide a steppingstone to a cushier gig at the Seattle headquarters.
Koogler, 32, was raised on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle and now frequently visits New Mexico where his retired parents relocated. Both locales greatly inform the play. "Having a very spare set evokes what it feels like to me to be in New Mexico," he says. "I find it to be a vast, empty, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying place."
The son of a therapist mom who "would take the ferry into Seattle to go to work" and a carpenter dad who "would drive off in a truck to go build a porch or a house or whatever he was working on that day," Koogler is equally familiar with the people who populate both ends of the economic landscape. "I grew up around a lot of itinerate men without a lot of money who made a living with their hands; there were many women like that too: massage therapists, babysitters, part-time art teachers," he recalls. "I have a very active sense of what it means to be on the edge of losing everything. I just don't see those characters as often as I'd like on stage, and I feel an identification with them."
Many of the adults Koogler encountered growing up had been part of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s that dreamed of creating egalitarian communities. But a few decades later, many are now teetering on the edge of the lower class. "There are a couple of characters in Fulfillment Center who come from that world," Koogler says. "One is John the carpenter (played by Frederick Weller) and one is Suzan, who was a folk singer for many years and now finds herself sort of cast on the mercy of the world because she believed in the goodness of the world."
Since he's never worked in a shipping center, Koogler -- a Yale grad who studied political philosophy and wrote his senior thesis on the moral obligations Americans owe others -- had to do his homework. So he talked with friends in such jobs and did "a ton of reading" about the companies that employ them.
But Koogler was careful not to let his research get in the way of the story he wants to tell. "My plays are not exposés or docudramas," he says. "Although I'm writing about very specific places, they are also imaginary. They are about themselves and about more than themselves." The result is a timely snapshot of people clinging to the margins of the American Dream.
Top image: Deirdre O’Connell and Frederick Weller. Photos by Matthew Murphy.