On a particular Saturday afternoon at the Manhattan Theater Club production of his new play Good People, playwright David Lindsay-Abaire revealed to an exuberant matinee crowd that the compelling characters he created for this play were known to him from his upbringing in South Boston -- even down to the detail of the bingo games his mother enjoyed, as well as the googly eyed rabbit figurines. He might have been in Los Angeles that weekend: nominated for an Independent Spirit writing award for the screenplay of his drama, Rabbit Hole, or to support Nicole Kidman who was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in the film. But obvious to all, Lindsay-Abaire was happy to be at the talk back for Good People.
Of course the word good is edgy. When asked which character is good, he said all of them. Or, none of them. Or maybe Stevie at the end if you define a good person, as the play does, as one who will give money to someone who needs it. In this working class environment in tough times, Margie, as perfectly acted by Frances McDormand under the expert direction of Daniel Sullivan is trapped in "Southie": we see her, boldly honest, loyal, and, as in all great theater going back to Oedipus, proud to a fault; she is the instrument of her own fate. Margaret is a woman of such low expectations, you ask, could she have gotten out of South Boston.
The unwed mother of a mentally challenged grown up daughter, Margie creates some suspense around the father. When Margie loses her job at the convenience store, she goes to see Mike (a fine Tate Donovan), a high school flame who broke away from the neighborhood and became a successful fertility doctor. Now living in Chestnut Hill with a much younger wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) whose color adds to the layering of discourse in this racially loaded province, Mike has morphed, in Margie's words, joining the "lace curtain Irish." Deploying one zinger after another, Margie is especially good at showing those around her exactly who they are. Most people, good and otherwise, can muster more self-preserving diplomacy.
The excellent sets (Jon Lee Beatty) and costumes (David Zinn) especially evoke the noble but worn environs of the bingo crowd: the greedy landlady Dottie played by Estelle Parsons, a neighbor, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), and Stevie, Margie's former boss (Patrick Carroll) functioning like a Greek chorus, egging Margie on and taking her back, wounded yet strong after her glimpse into Mike's new life with all its bourgeois grandeur outside Southie. "I thought the house would have columns," she says giving the place a once-over.
David Lindsay-Adaire mines his hometown frontier well, neatly marking the fault line between white and blue collar. He wanted to write about class in America, he said, a subject the British do so well. Just maybe as Americans continue to feel the effects of recession economics, the subject of class may be all too resonant.
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