Why does opportunity knock for some, when others get doors slammed in their face?
That question looms large in "Good People," David Lindsay-Abaire's thought-provoking, at times wince-inducing new play that opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club production.
For anyone who's questioned their own fortune (and who hasn't?), this superbly acted yet not fully focused drama will hit home - and the heart.
The author specializes in characters at a crossroads or in crisis, whether it's a runaway wife in "Wonder of the World" or grief-stricken parents in his Pulitzer-winning play, "Rabbit Hole," previous MTC shows.
In his new present-day drama, which he's laced liberally with flinty humor, Lindsay-Abaire returns to his home turf − a blue-collar South Boston neighborhood. Two old friends and, briefly, teenage sweethearts, reconnect after 30 years. Their lives are radically different.
In the opening scene, Margaret (Frances McDormand) gets canned by Stevie (Patrick Carroll), her boss at the local dollar store. Bad breaks are the story of her life. She dropped out of high school after the birth of her mentally retarded daughter and she's scraped by ever since.
Out of work, cash and options, Margie is urged by her bingo buds Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Dottie (Estelle Parsons, spry and amusing) to go see Mike (Tate Donovan) about a job.
Mike left town for college, became a doctor and never returned. His wife, Kate (a terrific Renee Elise Goldsberry), teaches at Boston University. They have a little girl, a big house in upscale Chestnut Hill and a marriage on the mend from unspecified rough patches. It doesn't help that Kate, who is black, is often mistaken for the couple's nanny.
The play snaps to life when Margie shows up unexpectedly at Mike's home to force the issue about needing a job. When Kate suggests she baby-sit for them and Mike nixes the idea, the confrontation goes from awkward to scary. Old memories, including one about Mike's violent fight with a black kid, and recriminations explode. A blast from the past indeed.
Daniel Sullivan's deft staging uses retracting panels to shrink the playing space, cannily underscoring the story's intimacy and human scale. John Lee Beatty's versatile sets conjure homes, offices and, in a not-so-subtle reference to luck, a church-basement bingo hall.
For all its ideas about how luck, class, race and the choices we make forever shape our lives, "Good People" is still in search of precisely the story it wants to tell.
Lindsay-Abaire muddies things with late reveals that make you wonder if, to use Margie's favorite phrase, she or Mike are "good people." You'll change your mind and then change it again on both of them.
There's nothing ambiguous about the topnotch acting. Donovan's low-key, but lived-in performance makes Mike fully believable. And the Oscar-winning McDormand, while not always likable, is resonantly sympathetic as a not-so- educated woman wised up by endless hard knocks. If the play can't grant Margaret a reversal of fortune, it manages a sliver of hope. She deserves it.
Gritty, tough-talking, blue- collar characters are hardly a rarity onstage. But most of the time their low cash balance is part of the background: It provides color and gives set designers a chance to have fun creating squalid, picture-imperfect living rooms.
Not so in "Good People," the wonderful new play by David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") that opened last night. The central character, Margie -- Frances McDormand ("Fargo"), in a remarkably ego-free performance -- spends the entire show looking for a job. As her options shrink, she becomes increasingly pushy and desperate. And why not? She and her mentally disabled adult daughter are just a paycheck away from being on the street.
Luckily, this isn't a manipulative tear-jerker or a simplistic diatribe. "Good People" is poignant, brave and almost subversive in its focus on what it really means to be down on your luck.
In the opening scene, Margie, who lives in working-class South Boston, is fired from her job in a dollar store. When she learns her old high school boyfriend, Mike (Tate Donovan), is back in town -- still handsome and now a wealthy doctor -- she drops by his practice, hoping for employment leads. But he's got nothing for her, and her insistence makes him uncomfortable.
"I'm not fancy enough for this office," Margie says, covering up her disappointment before hitting back: "You're all lace-curtain Irish now."
Acerbic and no-nonsense, Margie isn't always the nicest person at the bingo hall, but you understand what drives her. Lindsay-Abaire and McDormand have great empathy and affection for Margie -- and they make sure the audience does, too.
When she confronts Mike and his wife, Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry), in the second act, she exposes the harsh realities of class divisions and the role of sheer dumb luck in social climbing. In keeping with the show's clear-eyed fairness, though, things don't end in easy-cheesy catharsis.
Under Daniel Sullivan's sensitive direction, the cast -- including the wryly sharp Estelle Parsons and Becky Ann Baker as Margie's landlady and best friend, respectively -- gives us fully rounded characters that never fall into caricature. Indeed, the play is often very funny, but never at the expense of its ill-starred characters. It's that generosity that makes "Good People" a good show.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you understand Margaret Walsh from the get-go, because she’s not an easy gal to get a fix on. Not at first, anyway.
Embodied with an ideal balance of expertise and empathy by Frances McDormand, Margie (as her friends call her, using a hard “g”) is the not-quite heroine of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” the very fine new play that opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. And discovering how Margie operates — and where she’s coming from — is one of the more subtly surprising treats of this theater season.
Where Margie comes from is, on one level, a no-brainer. She’s from South Boston, or Southie, and her most basic notions of herself are tied up in her identification with that neighborhood. She was born there, and the odds are she’ll die there, never having escaped its particular culture of poverty and loyalty. Why this has to be is the gentle mystery that propels “Good People,” a Manhattan Theater Club production that also stars Tate Donovan and is directed with a skillfully slow hand by Daniel Sullivan. Other people escape from Southie, including a guy Margie dated in high school. Why can’t she?
For whatever reasons, the seedier milieus of Boston have of late become favorite haunts for popular crime novelists and filmmakers like Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) and Ben Affleck (“The Town”), a fashionable place to uncover dark secrets on mean streets. Steeped in mouthy Southie lingo and hard-knocks sociology, “Good People” has a few secrets of its own, but their revelations are unlikely to startle you. In this play character really is fate. And when you look back, everyone has behaved exactly in character, without any plot-bending, credibility-stretching manipulations on the part of its author.
Such integrity is less common than you might think in theater. How often do you leave a play thinking, “There’s no way she would have done that,” or “He wouldn’t talk like that”? But as in his previous Broadway drama, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rabbit Hole” (2006), Mr. Lindsay-Abaire (who grew up in South Boston) is scrupulous here about presenting people who are consistent even in their inconsistencies.
You get the feeling that this writer — who made his name with fantasy-tinged, diabolically whimsical works like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” — feels a special obligation not to cheat or take shortcuts when working in naturalism. This means not only that “Good People” refuses to shy from the clichés that its characters would normally use, but also that there is little that’s dramatically flashy or high impact.
True, Margie has been given a couple of winningly foul-mouthed, bingo-playing eccentric cronies (deliciously portrayed by Estelle Parsons and Becky Ann Baker). But the production -- designed with unobtrusively heightened, class-defining detail by John Lee Beatty (sets) and David Zinn (costumes) — is achingly aware that what doesn’t happen in people’s lives counts for as much, if not more, than what does.
There’s not a moment when Ms. McDormand is onstage that you don’t feel Margie is assessing the absences in her existence as a single, working mother of a grown-up daughter with a child’s mind. This is particularly true once she makes contact with Mike Dillon (Mr. Donovan, excellent), a guy she dated toward the end of high school (but hasn’t seen in 30 years), who is now a successful fertility doctor.
Margie’s reason for looking up Mike is an all-too familiar one in the current economy. She needs a job. In the play’s first scene — which lays the groundwork for everything that follows in ways you don’t fully appreciate at the time — Margie is fired by her boss, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), for excessive tardiness.
Margie knew Stevie when he was a boy, she knew his mother; she knows whom he’s dating now and what people say about him behind his back. She is not above using this knowledge, easily accumulated and stored up in an insular neighborhood like Southie, for emotional blackmail. The thing about Margie, though, is that while she starts off tough, she’s not so good on follow-through. And there comes a very specific moment — it happens when Ms. McDormand bends her knees just a bit, as if the breath has gone out of her — that you realize that not only is Margie conceding defeat here but also that she always knew she was going to.
This central paradox in Margie’s character — what might be described as a feisty defeatism — is beautifully conveyed by Ms. McDormand, who won an Oscar for playing a far more assured figure, a tenacious Minnesota police officer in the 1996 film “Fargo.” In dealing with others, Margie is combative, sly, nasty and tricky. But in the very same breath she is doubtful, reluctant and self-sabotagingly kind.
This combination of elements leads Mike to describe Margie as a master of passive aggression when she shows up, uninvited, at his blandly expensive-looking office.
Certainly Margie knows what buttons to push (including by using the term “lace-curtain Irish”) to trigger waves of guilt in her ex-boyfriend, who has lost nearly all contact with the old neighborhood. She wrangles an invitation to a party at Mike’s home that weekend, given by his wife, Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry in a spot-on performance as a bourgeois princess).
Mike’s home is the setting for most of the second act, and I don’t want to tell you too much about what happens there. If you’re a New York theater addict, you probably know that Ms. Goldsberry (who appeared in the musical “The Color Purple”) is African-American. But just because “Good People” is about South Boston, a site notorious for racial strife, doesn’t mean that Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is going to set a match to working-class prejudices. He’s more clever than that. He plays the race card here only to suggest that for his purposes it’s irrelevant.
The social dichotomy being explored isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s who does and doesn’t escape from where he or she comes from. Perversely, it seems, it’s the person with the thickest skin who has the best chances of rising above. Mr. Donovan makes Mike an artful study in willed amnesia, and the pain that surprises him when Margie summons the ghosts of their shared past is all the more palpable by not being directly expressed.
In the arguments that erupt throughout “Good People” — and they range from comradely sniping to the tossing of whatnots (a googly-eyed rabbit toy, as it happens) — characters often accuse one another of being too mean or too nice, too soft or too hard. They’re right on all counts.
Whether it’s Ms. Parsons’s amiably avaricious landlady or Ms. Goldsberry’s reflexively compassionate suburbanite, there’s nothing pure about the goodness or badness of the folks who inhabit this play. This makes them among the most fully human residents of Broadway these days.
David Lindsay-Abaire calls his new play, simply, " Good People. " Like everything in this deceptively amiable, stealthily gripping tragicomedy, however, the words are less plain than they first let on.
On one level, this is a straightforward class-collision story about a woman stuck struggling in the old South Boston neighborhood and a man, her old boyfriend, who made it out. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("Rabbit Hole"), along with director Daniel Sullivan and a splendid six-actor cast, keeps finding the sting that happens when salt-of-the-earth sentimentality rubs on the real bruises of life.
The heart and center is Frances McDormand - a rigorous stage presence as well as the irresistible muse of "Fargo" and related Coen brothers movies. As Margaret, an unemployed cashier with a severely disabled grown daughter, the actress once again turns a kaleidoscopically honest lack of pretense into something both breezy and exquisite. Rooted in pride, naked with envy and desperate for work, Margaret looks up her former flame (Tate Donovan), a doctor with an upscale black wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and a sharp, self-loathing defensiveness about having become "lace-curtain Irish."
Nobody is spared - with condescension toward no one - in this multi-scene tale of two Bostons, each neatly established with telling detail by designer John Lee Beatty. Well, Estelle Parsons does overanimate the eccentricity a bit as Margaret's self-involved landlady, but the caricature functions as a comic grace note to lull us into expecting blue-collar cartoons.
The plot leads toward a revelation, of sorts, but all kinds of tiny bombs are exploded along the way.
Like "Rabbit Hole," " Good People " continues the playwright's naturalistic journey away from the imaginative, but increasingly tiresome absurdity that began at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1999 with the Gothic-outlaw-nightmare farce "Fuddy Meers."
Unlike "Rabbit Hole," which I found a glum domestic melodrama, " Good People " finds ways to fold Lindsay-Abaire's lovely nutty side into the pain.
The play also makes clear that Lindsay-Abaire has given major and lesser-known actresses some of the most intelligent, unconventional female characters in the theater today. The ones here may be good people, but they're nobody's fools.
In works as diverse as the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole and Shrek the Musical, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has shown a gift for finding comedy in tragic circumstances.
Rabbit Hole, which he adapted for a 2010 film, focused on an attractive, accomplished couple whose seemingly charmed life was shattered by the accidental death of their 4-year-old son. In contrast, the central figure in Lindsay-Abaire's excellent new play, Good People (* * * ½ out of four), is a woman for whom things can only get better.
When we meet Margie Walsh, a middle-aged, life-long resident of working-class South Boston, she is being let go from the latest in a long string of menial jobs. As the single mom of a daughter whose difficult predicament is gradually, painfully revealed, Margie is desperate to find work again. So when a fellow "Southie" mentions running into an old friend from the neighborhood who's now a successful doctor, there's a flicker of cautious optimism.
Alas, the poignant, twisting tale that follows at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where People opened Thursday, is hardly a late-blooming Cinderella story. Mike, the physician who was Margie's high school buddy — and briefly, but meaningfully, her beau — does express a measure of playful affection for Margie, once she manages to track him down.
But their first meeting is also rife with tension and ill-concealed resentment. By design, Mike could never be Prince Charming; Margie's utter lucklessness is too central to the plot. If People can at times border on contrived in stressing that ill fortune, the play also raises some genuinely provocative questions about how social forces and individual choices inform our lives, and the challenges in transcending them.
The cast — expertly directed by Daniel Sullivan, fresh off his triumphant The Merchant of Venice— surveys those challenges with an uncompromising humanity. As the lead character, Frances McDormand, miscast in a 2008 revival of The Country Girl, redeems herself with a blazingly authentic performance. Her Margie is an earthy survivor with a gallows wit, achingly decent but clearly not above bitterness and bad decisions.
Mike is more elusive, at least initially, and Tate Donovan does a masterful job of peeling the layers off his handsome, affable exterior. Becky Ann Baker and the divine Estelle Parsons lend hilarious support as, respectively, Margie's chatty childhood pal and drolly mercenary landlord.
But the most interesting role in People falls to a less experienced, albeit similarly resourceful, actress. Renée Elise Goldsberry is cast as Kate, Mike's beautiful young wife, who is both African-American and a child of privilege. Our first impression of Kate is that of a coddled but well-meaning trophy spouse. But her exchanges with Mike and Margie expose a more complicated person, one who deflects the envy and self-pity that have provided Margie with a certain solace.
Good People may not always defy our assumptions as robustly as Kate does Margie's. But it's too thoughtful, moving and richly entertaining to be missed.
The success of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," a jokey kitchen-sink drama about a family in crisis, was foreordained, right down to its winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Broadway loves glib, pseudo-serious TV-style family dramas in which the faces are familiar ("Rabbit Hole" starred Cynthia Nixon and Tyne Daly) and nothing surprising happens to anyone. Now Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has served up a double dose of more of the same, and it was a hit even before it opened. "Good People," in which Frances McDormand plays a spunky working-class gal who always has a wisecrack at the ready, has already announced a two-week extension of its run.
"Good People" is, or purports to be, a study of life in Southie, a down-at-heel Boston neighborhood beloved of movie stars who think they can do the local accent. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, who comes from a real-life Southie family, managed to land a scholarship to a tony New England prep school, which was his escalator to fame and fortune. All this undoubtedly explains the plot of "Good People," in which Margie (Ms. McDormand, who works the charm pedal a bit too enthusiastically) is fired from her job as a clerk at a local dollar store, thus making it impossible for her to support her adult daughter, who was born prematurely and is severely handicapped (and who is kept offstage throughout the play, presumably so as not to shock the matinée crowd). In desperation, Margie looks up Mikey (Tate Donovan), an old high-school boyfriend who studied hard, became a doctor and now lives in a big house in a fancy suburb with his cute young wife (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who is—wait for it—an upper-middle-class black.
In the first scene, we see Margie being canned for chronic lateness. Needless to say, it's not her fault: She has babysitter problems. Indeed, her only flaw is an endearing one, which is that she can't stop herself from saying what she thinks at any given moment, no matter how ill-timed it may be. Otherwise, she's a basically good person, and that brings us to the moral of the play, which is that bad things happen to good people—and vice versa. Take Mikey, who believes that his success is his own doing and not a matter of luck, a conviction that has made him resentful and guilt-ridden, two qualities that manifest themselves in his willingness to treat Margie like dirt.
Herein lies part of the phoniness of "Good People." Of course people like Margie and Mikey exist, but I doubt it's a coincidence that they are exactly the kinds of people who fit into the familiar sociological narrative that permeates every page of this play. In Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's America, success is purely a matter of luck, and virtue inheres solely in those who are luckless. So what if Mikey worked hard? Why should anybody deserve any credit for working hard? Hence the crude deck-stacking built into the script of "Good People," in which Mikey is the callous villain who forgot where he came from and Margie the plucky Southie gal who may be the least little bit racist (though she never says anything nasty to Mikey's wife—that would be going too far!) but is otherwise a perfect heroine-victim.
No less phony, though, is the fact that "Good People" plays like a comedy, not a tragedy. For all their grinding poverty, Margie and her Southie friends (Becky Ann Baker and Estelle Parsons) are incapable of uttering two consecutive lines without tossing in a snappy comeback. (Mikey: "I'm a reproductive endocrinologist." Margie: "I don't know what you just said, but I just got a little excited.") Nor is their wit the deceptive banter that Israel Horovitz deployed to ferociously telling effect last year in "Sins of the Mother," a play about four unemployed New England stevedores that is as honest as "Good People" is fraudulent. Where Mr. Horovitz's angry characters snipe at one another to let off steam, Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's characters do so to keep everybody comfy. The giveaway—not that you need one—is the play's bait-and-switch semihappy ending, whose unearned sentimentality negates all that has come before it.
For all its fundamental falseness, "Good People" is put together with great technical skill, and Daniel Sullivan, the director, has made the most of the opportunities provided by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, especially in the adroitly staged scene in which Margie and her cronies play bingo in a church basement. I couldn't figure out, though, why Mikey, who hates Southie and all it stands for, continues to speak with a thick neighborhood accent. Wouldn't he have made every possible effort to shed it? But such subtleties of characterization are not Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's stock in trade: He is, rather, a commodity trader, and "Good People" is a choice example of his wares, a supersafe play that takes supremely great care to tell its viewers only what they want to hear.