Deirdre O’Connell and Bobby Moreno. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Review by Massimo Iacoboni

The sprawling emptiness of the South West’s desert is mirrored in the hearts of four troubled characters in Abe Koogler’s (Kill Floor) Fulfillment Center, an exploration of existential anxiety and human disconnectedness set in and around a New Mexico shipping facility.

In the play, which runs through July 9th at Manhattan Theatre Club and is directed by Daniel Aukin (Fool for Love), relationships are strained to the point of solipsism, and everyone, although desperately aching to connect, is engaged in a hopeless dialogue with oneself. It makes for an intense ninety minutes, during which the emotional alienation of the characters manages nonetheless to create an absorbing connection with the audience. Each performer embodies their character with such great empathy and skill that by the end we are left with a disquieting sense of dread, as if we soon might learn that something horrible has happened to them.

Suzan (the wonderful Deirdre O’Connell) is a 60-something, down-on-her-luck former chanteuse looking to make a few bucks so she can get to Maine and reunite with her boyfriend. It is not exactly certain he’ll be thrilled to have her back, nor is it clear why she’s running away from another boyfriend back in Tucson. But this much we know: her sister lives only an hour away and Suzan hasn’t seen her in a long time because, in her own words, she has “exhausted that connection”. Alex (the excellent Bobby Moreno) is the manager of the fulfillment center where Suzan gets a job assembling items to be shipped. It is a strenuously physical job to be performed at a rapid pace and with few breaks, according to an exacting corporate schedule which sensitive Alex is ill-equipped to enforce.

Suzan has found shelter at a nearby campsite, where she lives in a tent near the bathrooms. It is not ideal but she makes it work with the help of a bottle, which one night she tries to share with laconic John (the outstanding Frederick Weller) a somewhat mysterious shell of a man who can barely articulate a full sentence. He is willing to share, however, that all he owns after his girlfriend threw him out of the house is his car, and the few odd possessions stashed in it. Full disclosure: this writer is a frequent traveler to the American South West and thoroughly familiar with both the landscape and the somewhat misfit characters that inhabit it. John, a reformed alcoholic, is a painfully vivid portrait of so many marginal men who populate the desert and barely survive the discomfiting harshness of its isolation. As portrayed by Mr. Weller, John is inarticulate but somehow profound, a man who conveys both a cosmic sense of defeat and virile dignity, a heart-breaking mixture of uncultured intelligence, dashed ambition and moral vanquishment.

This being the 21st century however, John, in spite of sheer poverty, is apt to find a modicum of solace in his cell phone, which he wields expertly to connect with other wounded souls, most notably warrior-like Madeleine (the terrific Eboni Booth) who, by the way, also happens to be Alex’s girlfriend. Madeleine, who like Suzan is fond of the bottle, just arrived from New York City to reunite with Alex, hoping he will soon get a promotion so the couple can relocate to Seattle. Madeleine hates New Mexico and her new life right from the start but unlike Alex, who expresses his tentatively held opinions with much hesitancy, Madeleine’s tongue slashes the air around her like a viper’s. During her first, awkward encounter with John, which takes place in a bar, she brandishes her verbal skills with such relish that you worry the poor guy might end up needing bandages. It is with a measure of relief, therefore, that when John finally finds his own tongue and lashes back at her with equal, and perhaps superior fervor, we witness a cowed Madeleine’s uneasy retreat into Alex’s arms.

But such relief is briefly held, for Madeleine’s retreat is laced with such resignation that you almost feel the bitterness balloon inside her chest. And when Suzan later finds herself in a dicey situation and finally seeks the help of her estranged sister, you’ll feel like getting in your car and drive her all the way to Maine yourself.

Fulfillment Center, by Abe Koogler, directed by Daniel Aukin.

WITH Eboni Booth, Bobby Moreno, Deirdre O’Connell, Frederick Weller.

Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman; costume design by Asta Bennie Hostetter; lighting design by Pat Collins; costume design by Ryan Rumery. Through July 9th at Manhattan Theatre Club Tickets.