Friday, March 4, 2011

A Play for Our Times


McDormand and Goldsberry in Good People (photo by Joan Marcus)

Good People

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Frances McDormand, Tate Donovan, Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Estelle Parsons

February 8-May 8, 2011
Friedman Theater, 252 West 47th Street

The “good people” in David Lindsay-Abaire's new play are the salt of the earth from the Lower End of South Baw-stin. The playwright undoubtedly did much research before creating these tough, authentically working-class “Southies,” as they’re called: he’s obviously strived to write a play for our difficult economic times that shows, however bleak things seem, all-American fortitude will see us through.

Good People concerns Margaret, a middle-aged single mom who has a crappy job at a local store to keep her head above water while she cares for a grown daughter whose illness can be traced to her premature birth. In the play’s opening scene, Margaret loses her job because of her perpetual lateness dealing with her daughter. The rest of the play shows how desperate Margaret is in trying to find another job in order to stay in her apartment for another month.

There's much to admire in this play about real people with real problems: Lindsay-Abaire's penchant for biting dialogue never condescends to these scrappy characters. When Margaret (played with forceful resilience by Frances McDormand) talks with her close friend/neighbor Joan (a genial Becky Ann Baker) and crotchety landlady Dottie (Estelle Parsons, channeling Elaine Stritch to often devastating effect) about their myriad problems, their crackling conversations sound unforced and genuine.

At Joan’s prodding, Margaret calls on Mike (well-played by Tate Donovan), a high school flame turned successful doctor, innocuously kicking around old times at his office before she lets him know about her dire unemployment situation. She then visits his home, where she meets his wife Kate (a lively Renee Elise Goldsberry) and their friendly chatting gives way to bitter recriminations and angry outbursts over dredging up the past.

Good People satisfies more in Lindsey-Abaire’s dialogue than his plotting, especially in the overlong scene at Mike’s home that takes up most of the second act. The play starts to drag as revelations open festering wounds until the trio reaches a boiling point. What these people say remains far more interesting than what they do.

Belabored bingo scenes at least further the idea of how close-knit these people are, although the store manager who fires Margaret in the first scene, Stevie (Patrick Carroll in a nicely understated performance), is made into an unlikely bingo addict and fodder for the women’s targeted jokes about his sexuality. Too bad Lindsey-Abaire brings back bingo for the last scene, in which the number Margaret needed at the earlier game is called out, depriving her of a much-needed jackpot in a shameless bit of dramatic irony.

Still, Daniel Sullivan expertly directs his sextet of performers on John Lee Beatty’s precisely detailed sets: the cast is a finely-honed instrument in which the Oscar-winning McDormand doesn’t stand out as a Hollywood star on holiday. Such cohesion keeps Good People afloat even when Lindsay-Abaire’s writing (particularly his plotting) betrays it.

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