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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Heading the not just good but superb cast is Frances McDormand as Margaret, a fifty-year-old high school drop out with a resume of dead-end minimum wage jobs. Unlike Mike (Tate Donovan), the boy with whom she had a brief fling before he went off to college on a scholarship, Margaret has never left Southie, a low-income Boston neighborhood. It's a place where the under achievers who predominate tend to view those who get away and become big achievers with admiration and wonder, but also a touch of envy and resentment. Southie is also a neighborhood rife with hostilities between its white and non-white population, and this something which adds to the issues explored in this drama.
McDormand's portrayal of Margaret will be a tough act to follow in the future productions that Good People is sure to have. She wrests every nuance from this complex character. She's funny but also tragic, desperate but with a strong streak of determination, nice but push-able into nastyness. You may well find yourself wishing you could help her find her a job, even though it's clear that there's a could've, would've, should've element to her hard luck life.
We first meet Margaret in the alley behind the Dollar Store where she's a cashier (the first of scenic wizard John Lee Beatty's five splendidly detailed rotating sets) where Stevie (Patrick Carroll in a fine understated performance), the son of a dead friend from her girlhood days has the unenviable job of firing her for being consistently late. This is not the first job lost as a result of her difficult personal life which includes the care of a retarded daughter without the help of a husband or any other family members.
Given that the Great Recession has not left Southies unscathed, finding another job is going to be a big problem. And while Margaret shares gossip and coffee (Beatty's set #2, Margaret's kitchen) and Bingo nights at the local church (Set # 3) with her landlady Dottie (Estelle Parsons), Dottie has her own currently unemployed son to worry about and isn't about to stand for non-payment of the rent. Advice is all Margaret's lifelong pal Jean (Becky Ann Baker) has to offer.
While neither Dottie or Jean can do much to help Margaret, the actors playing them help enormously to make Good People as good as it is. Estelle Parsons is not just an amazingly energetic octogenarian but brings wry wit to the role of the craft-y landlady — that is crafty in the literal sense as she spends her evenings making toy rabbits glued into flower pots and enterprisingly sells at the Bingo games. Becky Ann Baker as the acerbic Jean also enhances the picture of this triumverate of women living circumscribed lives. These women as well as the other characters (with the possible exception of Stevie) have their not so good sides but their conversations, especially while simultaneously playing Bingo, is priceless enough to forgive those scenes from going on a bit too long.
As it turns out it is Jean's advice to the unemployed Margaret that sets off the plot fireworks. Having bumped into Mike, hers and Margaret's former classmate and neighbor who's returned to Boston as a baby doctor (actually not your run of the mill obstetrician, but a specialist in reproductive endocrinology), Jean urges Margaret to look him up in order to see if he might have a job for her.
Margaret is hesitant, but she can't afford to ignore any opportunity for work. Besides, she is curious to see how time and success has affected her former boyfriend. A meeting does ensue in Mike's office (Set designer Beatty's move into more upscale decor). Both Donovan and McDormand masterfully make this encounter at once amiable and uncomfortable.
The bristly undertone is established by the fact that Margaret, having failed to get through to Mike, has now managed to get past the receptionist without an appointment. And so, despite hugs and congratulations about looking good (and, in his case, his obviously being in a good place), he's on the defensive because he knows even if he had a job for her she wouldn't be qualified. Her realization that she can expect nothing from this meeting brings a sarcastic edge to her comments about his much younger wife. The fraught with tension pleasantries end with Mike finding himself shamed into inviting Margaret to a birthday party his wife is throwing for him at their home in Chestnut Hill, a very fancy Boston neighborhood.
By the end of the first act, everything is set for a blow-up between this play's representatives of the haves and the have nots to be inevitable and we must still meet the talked about but as yet unseen sixth cast member, Mike's wife Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry). But while it's no problem for John Lee Beatty to rotate the scenery to create the elegant home of the doctor, this cast is too small for a big party scene. It was therefore up to Mr. Lindsay-Abaire to put on his dramaturgical thinking cap to find a way to bring the reunion to a head so that Margaret is the only guest at Mke and Kate's home on the planned party date. He's finessed things quite cleverly, working in an additional problem situation relating to Mike"s marriage which also makes some events from his Southie days best left unrevealed.
Thanks to Daniel Sullivan's polished direction and the superb McDormand, you 're probably not even going to be aware of the somewhat too slick and facile elements of this blowup scene while you're watching it; at least not until two props are used to bring that scene to an explosive end — the first is one of Dottie's rabbits; the second is an atypical "push present" (a term for a husband's gift to a new mother for the effort exerted in giving birth).
Overall, Good People, adds up to two hours with characters who if less skillfully written and portrayed could easily be boring and depressing. Instead, they are engaging and funny, as well as provocatively reminding us how easy it is for good people in America to fall between the cracks and into what's likely to be a permanent underclass.
Links to reviews of other David Lindsay-Abaire plays:
Wonder of the World