THEATER REVIEW | 'GOOD PEOPLE'
Been Back to the Old Neighborhood?
From left, Becky Ann Baker as Jean, Frances McDormand as Margie and Estelle Parsons as Dottie in the Broadway play “Good People,” set mostly in the Southie area of Boston.
By BEN BRANTLEY
March 3, 2011
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you understand Margaret Walsh from the get-go, because she’s not an easy gal to get a fix on. Not at first, anyway.
Embodied with an ideal balance of expertise and empathy by Frances McDormand, Margie (as her friends call her, using a hard “g”) is the not-quite heroine of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” the very fine new play that opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. And discovering how Margie operates — and where she’s coming from — is one of the more subtly surprising treats of this theater season.
Where Margie comes from is, on one level, a no-brainer. She’s from South Boston, or Southie, and her most basic notions of herself are tied up in her identification with that neighborhood. She was born there, and the odds are she’ll die there, never having escaped its particular culture of poverty and loyalty. Why this has to be is the gentle mystery that propels “Good People,” a Manhattan Theater Club production that also stars Tate Donovan and is directed with a skillfully slow hand by Daniel Sullivan. Other people escape from Southie, including a guy Margie dated in high school. Why can’t she?
For whatever reasons, the seedier milieus of Boston have of late become favorite haunts for popular crime novelists and filmmakers like Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) and Ben Affleck (“The Town”), a fashionable place to uncover dark secrets on mean streets. Steeped in mouthy Southie lingo and hard-knocks sociology, “Good People” has a few secrets of its own, but their revelations are unlikely to startle you. In this play character really is fate. And when you look back, everyone has behaved exactly in character, without any plot-bending, credibility-stretching manipulations on the part of its author.
Such integrity is less common than you might think in theater. How often do you leave a play thinking, “There’s no way she would have done that,” or “He wouldn’t talk like that”? But as in his previous Broadway drama, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rabbit Hole” (2006), Mr. Lindsay-Abaire (who grew up in South Boston) is scrupulous here about presenting people who are consistent even in their inconsistencies.
You get the feeling that this writer — who made his name with fantasy-tinged, diabolically whimsical works like “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” — feels a special obligation not to cheat or take shortcuts when working in naturalism. This means not only that “Good People” refuses to shy from the clichés that its characters would normally use, but also that there is little that’s dramatically flashy or high impact.
True, Margie has been given a couple of winningly foul-mouthed, bingo-playing eccentric cronies (deliciously portrayed by Estelle Parsons and Becky Ann Baker). But the production -- designed with unobtrusively heightened, class-defining detail by John Lee Beatty (sets) and David Zinn (costumes) — is achingly aware that what doesn’t happen in people’s lives counts for as much, if not more, than what does.
There’s not a moment when Ms. McDormand is onstage that you don’t feel Margie is assessing the absences in her existence as a single, working mother of a grown-up daughter with a child’s mind. This is particularly true once she makes contact with Mike Dillon (Mr. Donovan, excellent), a guy she dated toward the end of high school (but hasn’t seen in 30 years), who is now a successful fertility doctor.
Margie’s reason for looking up Mike is an all-too familiar one in the current economy. She needs a job. In the play’s first scene — which lays the groundwork for everything that follows in ways you don’t fully appreciate at the time — Margie is fired by her boss, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), for excessive tardiness.
Margie knew Stevie when he was a boy, she knew his mother; she knows whom he’s dating now and what people say about him behind his back. She is not above using this knowledge, easily accumulated and stored up in an insular neighborhood like Southie, for emotional blackmail. The thing about Margie, though, is that while she starts off tough, she’s not so good on follow-through. And there comes a very specific moment — it happens when Ms. McDormand bends her knees just a bit, as if the breath has gone out of her — that you realize that not only is Margie conceding defeat here but also that she always knew she was going to.
This central paradox in Margie’s character — what might be described as a feisty defeatism — is beautifully conveyed by Ms. McDormand, who won an Oscar for playing a far more assured figure, a tenacious Minnesota police officer in the 1996 film “Fargo.” In dealing with others, Margie is combative, sly, nasty and tricky. But in the very same breath she is doubtful, reluctant and self-sabotagingly kind.
This combination of elements leads Mike to describe Margie as a master of passive aggression when she shows up, uninvited, at his blandly expensive-looking office.
Certainly Margie knows what buttons to push (including by using the term “lace-curtain Irish”) to trigger waves of guilt in her ex-boyfriend, who has lost nearly all contact with the old neighborhood. She wrangles an invitation to a party at Mike’s home that weekend, given by his wife, Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry in a spot-on performance as a bourgeois princess).
Mike’s home is the setting for most of the second act, and I don’t want to tell you too much about what happens there. If you’re a New York theater addict, you probably know that Ms. Goldsberry (who appeared in the musical “The Color Purple”) is African-American. But just because “Good People” is about South Boston, a site notorious for racial strife, doesn’t mean that Mr. Lindsay-Abaire is going to set a match to working-class prejudices. He’s more clever than that. He plays the race card here only to suggest that for his purposes it’s irrelevant.
The social dichotomy being explored isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s who does and doesn’t escape from where he or she comes from. Perversely, it seems, it’s the person with the thickest skin who has the best chances of rising above. Mr. Donovan makes Mike an artful study in willed amnesia, and the pain that surprises him when Margie summons the ghosts of their shared past is all the more palpable by not being directly expressed.
In the arguments that erupt throughout “Good People” — and they range from comradely sniping to the tossing of whatnots (a googly-eyed rabbit toy, as it happens) — characters often accuse one another of being too mean or too nice, too soft or too hard. They’re right on all counts.
Whether it’s Ms. Parsons’s amiably avaricious landlady or Ms. Goldsberry’s reflexively compassionate suburbanite, there’s nothing pure about the goodness or badness of the folks who inhabit this play. This makes them among the most fully human residents of Broadway these days.
By David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Daniel Sullivan; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Pat Collins; sound by Jill B C DuBoff; dialect coach, Charlotte Fleck; production stage manager, Roy Harris; artistic producer, Mandy Greenfield; general manager, Florie Seery. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge.com. Through May 8. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
WITH: Becky Ann Baker (Jean), Patrick Carroll (Stevie), Tate Donovan (Mike), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Kate), Frances McDormand (Margaret) and Estelle Parsons (Dottie).
Southie native David Lindsay-Abaire at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York, where his play “Good People’’ opened last week.
(Photo by Peter Foley for The Boston Globe)