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Good With People
From the moment hotel proprietress Helen (Blythe Duff) recognizes her new guest Evan (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) as the grown-up version of the boy who bullied her son Jack in school years ago, it feels like deja vu. We are, it seems, in for a re-incarnation of Blackbird , Harrower's Olivier Award-winning and much produced drama about a man come face to face with the woman with whom he had a sexual relationship when she was a girl. But the bullying incident at the heart of Good With People, the first play in the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, isn't enough of an elephant to merit its weight.
There's a politicial connotation to the incident — Evan had just moved to Helensburgh as the British Navy expanded its nuclear deterent fleet — but it's not enough to raise the stakes. The details of the incident are revealed quickly, and they're not quite damning enough to vilify Evan. Further, they lack the moral ambiguity necessary to make for great dramatic fodder.
Jack, it seems, might have had a hand in provoking the incident by telling Evan and his Navy friends to leave town. Evan, in turn, was wrong to resort to violence. But ultimately, Helen says, her son was "over it" a week later. Her husband, Evan remembers, seemed to sweep the entire episode under the rug when he served as his career adviser years later: "He asked me — he was very professional, betrayed no animosity whatsoever — if I was good with people." That the title of this work is extracted from that exchange points to its larger theme: why we re-write the past, and how that shapes our future.
Helen, more than anyone, seems to have held on to bad feelings from the incident. Evan wants to shrug it off, but he is clearly still troubled. Though he never expressly offers remorse about bullying Jack, there are hints that he feels guilty about what happened.
When Helen refers to her son's full name "Jack Hughes," it sounds to Evan like "J'accuse," the 19th century letter penned by Emile Zola accusing the French government of anti-semitism. There are some less subtle moments that offer a window into Evan's conscience, including surreal sequences in which he breaks down crying and Helen comes to his aid. These moments are never spoken about afterward, and it's not quite clear whether they're real or imagined (Tim Deiling's light design effectively delineates these scenes from the rest of the show).
Also ambiguous is the nature of Evan and Helen's relationship. Initially, it's contentious. Helen doesn't want Evan at the hotel, and Evan wants nothing more than to be left alone. But as it becomes clear they are both lost souls, the battle lines soften. Evan has just returned to his home town from volunteering in Pakistan to attend his parents' re-marriage, and finds himself desperately justifying how well things are going for him. Helen, meanwhile, is dealing with an empty nest (Jack has left home to live with a girlfriend) and a bad marriage.
Over the course of a few days at the Seaview, Helen increasingly assumes a motherly role in Evan's life and paradoxically, a sexual one. It starts with some too-long glances and eventually reaches a break point after she objects to his bringing back an overnight guest.
Helen tries to squelch the sexual issue, but only makes it more glaring in the process. "You excite me," Helen tells Evan. "Not. . .…not sexual. . .Definitely not sexual. Nothing holds you at all. Nothing has any hold on you." Whether their relationship is ever consummated is unclear. In fact, there's a lot that goes unsaid and unknown here.
While the empty spaces in plays can force us to read between the lines, the gaps are often frustratingly deep in Good With People. Harrower suggests deep wounds, but despite Scott-Ramsay and Duff's searing yet vulnerable performances, they remain too obscure to ring true.
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