nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 6, 2011
Good People—a new play by David Lindsay-Abaire, premiering on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre—is about people who, in general, are not good; not nice, or likeable, or equipped to help themselves or each other very much, either. They aren't the sort of people I particularly want to spend time with; the two hours I spent watching this play passed rather slowly, I'm afraid.
It takes place in the present day in blue-collar South Boston (Act One) and the affluent suburb of Chestnut Hill (most of Act Two); the entire cast (save Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays an outsider from the Washington, D.C. area) has been coached by Charlotte Fleck to put the aaahs in Haaahvaahd Yaaahd so that we can recognize them as hearty Massachusettsians. The story revolves around Margaret, a middle-aged single mother of an adult retarded (her word) daughter. She works at a dollar store for $9.20/hour when we first meet her...but not for long, because in the first scene of the play, set next to the dumpster behind the store, Margaret is fired by her boss, Steve. She tries everything from reminding Steve how well she knew his late mother to reminding Steve that she can't leave her home until her friend Dottie shows up to take care of her daughter Joyce, but he's adamant: she's unreliable, he tells her; and unfortunately, though we can see her life is tough, little evidence to refute Steve's thesis is put forth—now or at any time during the play.
When we see Margaret at home with Dottie (her landlady and upstairs neighbor, a dotty (sorry) elderly gal of the Sophia/Golden Girls variety) and Jean (her friend), we discover that in addition to being unreliable, Margaret isn't all that nice—though she's clearly more good-hearted than either of her pals, who take turns insulting one another or other people, pausing to sympathize with Margaret's unemployed condition but never offering any solid assistance. What happened to people helping each other, I wondered. Dottie reminds Margaret that the rent needs to be paid, and Jean warns her off trying to find a job at her own place of employment.
Jean does mention that an old friend of theirs, Mike, has returned to Boston after many years away. He's a fancy doctor now; Jean suggests that Margaret might drop in and ask him for a job. Which she does; and while Mike has no work for her, he reluctantly invites her to his birthday party (after she harangues him for being "lace curtain"). At Bingo the night before the party, Margaret gets a call from Mike: the party's been cancelled, because his little girl is sick. Does Margaret believe him? You have almost certainly guessed by now much of what transpires in Act Two.
I was disappointed by the two-dimensional sitcom-y characters, by the predictability of the plotting and of many of the details and gags, and by the slow pace of the piece (both the playwright and the director are responsible for this last problem: several of the scenes feel like filler, loaded with empty one-liners without moving the story forward; and the transitions between all the scenes are turtle-like, with an alienating panel closing off the set before our eyes and shielding us from the revolve happening behind it to set the next scene). Lindsay-Abaire, whose early plays include the wildly imaginative Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo, among others, seems grimly attached to naturalism here, and it does not suit him. I never believed in the characters or in their conflicts, despite their earnest and timely problems with money, employment, etc.
Daniel Sullivan has cast the play with six accomplished actors, only one of whom—Patrick Carroll, in the play's least important role of Steve—gets to portray someone with any redeeming characteristics. Frances McDormand, as Margaret, seems almost willfully abrasive at times; her style of acting never seems to mesh with the other actors', and there's no chemistry between her and any other player. Estelle Parsons delivers a few of Dottie's zingers effectively, while both Becky Ann Baker (Jean) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Mike's wife) make the most of one-note, unpleasant characters. Tate Donovan seems at sea as Mike, but his role doesn't make a whole lot of sense, I'm afraid.
And yet...my colleagues in the media and certainly the audience at the Friedman Theatre the other afternoon all seem quite happy with Good People and everything in it. When did persuasive, life-affirming theatre go out of style?