Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Location: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Lighting: Pat Collins
Costumes: David Zinn
Sound Design: Jill BC DuBoff
Starring Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll, Tate Donovan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Frances McDormand, and Estelle Parsons
Tenacity and Humor Confront Increasing Inequity
Black shifting flats open like a widening aperture to reveal a dumpster pushed up against a brick wall; an unsightly vista that begins Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play, Good People. Out from the backdoor bounds the indomitable Maggie, played by the incomparable Frances McDormand (Fargo, Wonder Boys) who shines as the center of this fantastic production for Manhattan Theater Club, directed by Tony Award winner, Daniel Sullivan. Maggie’s fast-talking South Boston accent recounts an unflattering story about her boss Stevie’s mother from back in the day, from before he was even born. The story delights Stevie, the wonderful Patrick Carrol, much less than it does the audience, whose easy laughter at McDormand’s spot-on comic delivery is suddenly silenced when we learn the purpose of this back alley meeting. Maggie is being fired from her job. The penetrating hush speaks to the moment we are living in and proves that Lindsay-Abaire’s play has come right on time.
Maggie’s story about Stevie’s mother’s botched shoplifting attempt carries the essential punch of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing. Painful experiences are wrapped in humor, a signature style common to those intimate with disappointment like the “Southies” represented here. As rendered by the playwright who brought us Rabbit Hole (2007, now a motion picture starring Nicole Kidman) and The Wonder of the World (2000), Maggie is an intelligent, three-dimensional character who uses her acerbic wit and flair for “busting-balls” to get her meaning across, sometimes betraying a reservoir of damage seething just beneath the surface. McDormand ‘s stellar performance captures the complexity of her character by combining swift comic timing with nuanced moments of strained vulnerability. One moment during the second scene, she fixes her stare outside a dingy kitchen window to piercingly convey a rising desperation within. With honesty and clarity, Lindsay-Abaire and McDormand come together to create a compelling portrait that doesn’t beg for pity, but commands respect and serious contemplation.
Despite a rigorous appeal to save her job, Maggie is fired anyway. Necessity propels her mission to find another way to support herself and her disabled daughter Joyce (who is never seen onstage). Her friend Jean, played with ferocity by the flame haired Becky Ann Baker (Assassins, Titanic), convinces her to look up her high school friend Mike (Tate Donovan), an accomplished doctor who managed to make it out of the “black hole” neighborhood Maggie and Jean still call home. Maggie is convinced to give it a try, even though her landlady, the hilarious Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde, TV’s Rosanne) highly doubts this is the best way to secure rent. Landlady Dottie believes the Gillette factory is a better bet, but Maggie deflects the suggestion as if certain doom awaits her there. The chemistry between these three accomplished actresses drives the dramatic pulse of the play. Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue crackles and pops with caustic wit while real issues of class and consequence are discussed with entertaining electricity.
Maggie makes her way into Mike’s office, without an appointment, and the meeting is fraught with the awkwardness of forced smiles and unspoken tension. Donovan coolly embodies the self-possessed ease of Mike’s financial success while McDormand’s Maggie darts about the swank office, designed by John Lee Beatty, with palpable unease. The striking juxtaposition between the two characters in this pivotal scene exposes the major themes of the play. Lindsay-Abaire wants us to consider not only how economic inequality happens in a country where supposedly we all have the chance to transcend our origins, but also how class difference shapes our character, our ethos. Do successful people simply make better choices? Or are they just lucky? The clash of perspectives onstage demonstrates there are no clear conclusions, but your view on the matter probably depends upon which side of the tracks you live on. Lindsay-Abaire does not make a virtue of a wage-earning life (thankfully), but does elucidate how being poor fixates the mind on one thing and one thing only — getting money. Whether it’s bingo or selling styrofoam rabbits, these women, like most of us, are always looking for a leg up.
Commitment to accurate portrayal is met on all levels of this well-balanced production. Costume design by David Zinn distinguishes the cultural markers of dress with finesse while including some fun details that reward a careful eye. Maggie’s bedazzled jean pockets and velour hoodie show up chintzy against the sparkle of Kate’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) diamond stud earrings, making the point without overstatement. Set designer Beatty constructs architecturally realistic scenery that shifts and moves to reveal new aspects of the stage as the play progresses. The precision in truthfulness falters in the second act, however, when the play adds more complications to the knot of its plot than can be meaningfully dealt with in the time remaining. The subtlety and humor established in the previous exchanges of dialogue is undermined when Lindsay-Abaire succumbs to a formulaic revealed secret that is more suited to Maury Povich than to a writer of his caliber. It betrays the characters by pushing them into moments of forced posturing. But this hiccup is mostly overcome by the formidable performances of McDormand, Donovan and Goldsberry, who plays the doctor’s moneyed, educated wife.
The final moments of the play demonstrate the deep compassion and sensitivity this dramatist has for his subject—the flawed, contradictory human being. You come away reflecting on what it means to be “good people” and bolstered by the hope that those elusive ones are still somewhere in our midst.