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People Needing People

April 13, 2012

Marylouise Burke, Sara Botsford and Jane Kaczmarek in Good People Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Great plays don’t have to be about great questions. But, it doesn’t hurt when they are. David Lindsay-Abaire’s recent New York success, Good People, which opened this week in its West Coast Premiere at The Geffen Playhouse, opts for this approach to greatness in an unpretentious way with a variant on the fate or free-will debate. More accurately, the issue at hand is whether or not people succeed in their lives due to good luck or by hard work and good choices. Sometimes that central premise in the play gets cluttered with any number of other concerns including the tropes of the American situation comedy. But at heart, Lindsay-Abaire is aiming for questions close to the heart of much contemporary American political debate and thought. Can those with little succeed simply by the force of their hard work and ambition, or are the cards stacked in a way that everything that rises must do so by the shifting tides of fortune.

There are two sets of candidates for the titular good people in Lindsay-Abaire’s story. Both have roots in Boston’s historically Irish-working class South Boston neighborhood. Margie, an excellent Jane Kaczmarek, has just been fired from her job as a dollar store cashier quickly bringing the wolf and an eviction notice to the door she shares with her adult physically and mentally disabled daughter. Her escalating desperation serves largely as a backdrop for good TV jokes with a dash of blue language until she's made aware of a former flame, Mike, played by Jon Tenney, who has recently returned to town. Mike grew up in the projects and is as much a Southie as Margie by history. But Mike, who is now an OB/GYN with a family and an expensive home has had much different fortunes. Margie noses her way into his office looking for work, but only finds a Pandora's box of thinly veiled resentments bundled up with reminiscences of summers long ago. She eventually finds herself invited to Mike’s upcoming Birthday party, which she decides to attend in hopes of hitting up a colleague of his for a job even after he calls to tell her the party is canceled the following day. She arrives to find the party is truly cancelled and spends an emotionally momentous evening with Mike and has young wife where all those prejudices and histories again bubble to the surface leaving the audience to decide if it is Margie and her friends or Mike and his family that are the good people.

The answers are not simple or especially clear even when the curtain falls, and Lindsay-Abaire has packed his drama with complex multi-faceted characters that can feel very real even when they do yammer on at times. The scenes between Margie and Mike, representing a good 70% of the evening, are the show’s strongest points and argue much more strongly for Lindsay-Abaire’s prowess as a chronicler of contemporary lives than his prior big success, Rabbit Hole. There are still some soft spots here. The scenes between Margie and her friends Dottie, a remarkable Marylouise Burke, and Jean, an equally fine Sara Botsford, can be a bit too comically pat. Not that the jokes aren’t funny. They are and there are many of them. But it’s at these moments Good People most sounds and acts like a play. But the bigger fish do swim back around in this tank, and director Matt Shakman gives the cast latitude to explore the complexities of these lives in a way that both draws the audience in even when we’re learning things that aren’t so nice about them and perhaps about ourselves. It’s a strong showing for the Geffen and comes recommended. Good People runs through May 13.

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