‘Good People’

Joan Marcus

Frances McDormand leads a superb new play from the writer of “Rabbit Hole.”

As tough as it is tender and shot through with aching authenticity, Good People is that rare play that is timeless and keyed into a specific moment of American life, without the need to grasp for topicality.

Bringing the same clear-eyed emotional observation that distinguished his Pulitzer Prize winner Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted another penetrating drama about deeply relatable issues, albeit with more warming doses of humor. As much as Cynthia Nixon’s riveting performance anchored the earlier play in its Broadway premiere, Frances McDormand’s raw characterization drives this one. She blends with unstarry humility into a superb ensemble in Daniel Sullivan’s jewel of a production for Manhattan Theatre Club.

There’s an obvious connection to this milieu for Lindsay-Abaire, who grew up in the poor, mostly Irish-Catholic blue-collar neighborhood of South Boston. Those roots are shared by Mike (Tate Donovan), a doctor who was smart and successful enough to escape to a well-heeled life across town in Chestnut Hill.

The same can’t be said for Margaret (McDormand), who has bounced among minimum-wage jobs her whole life. In an opening scene that balances comedy and pathos with an equilibrium that characterizes the entire play, Margaret pretends not to hear her boss at the Dollar Store (Patrick Carroll) as he explains why he has to fire her.

But perhaps the most wonderful quality of McDormand’s nuanced performance is that she’s never unsympathetic. We understand how she became this brittle, defensive person for whom deadpan sarcasm is a shield. Besides, she’s a sweetheart compared to her Southie pals Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Dottie (Estelle Parsons), a coupla bickering harpies who berate her for being too nice.

Dottie is also Margaret’s landlady, and it’s clear she’ll wait only so long for unpaid rent, especially with her deadbeat son needing a home. Without getting into belabored exposition, Lindsay-Abaire excels at sketching an environment in which nearly everyone is scraping by or drowning. The playwright refrains from judging even the most abrasive behavior, instead depicting the characters’ rough edges as pragmatic realism. Facing possible eviction with a handicapped adult daughter to take care of, Margaret looks up her old high school flame, Mike, hoping he can help her find work. This leads to a supremely awkward evening with Mike and his wife, Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), in their swanky home. A beautiful young black woman from a privileged background, Kate digs for stories from a past Mike has been reluctant to revisit. This creates friction as Margaret’s desperation boxes her into an increasingly tight corner.

The play attaches faces and voices to the accounts of working-class American struggles that fill op-ed pages these days. But it’s neither a bleeding-heart sob story nor an angry denunciation. Instead, it’s a thoughtful examination of hard-luck resentment, survivor guilt and the complex question of opportunity. Insensitive observers tend to dismiss social disadvantage as folks being too stupid or lazy to act on the chances life hands them. But as Lindsay-Abaire illustrates with unsentimental compassion, those breaks are not always forthcoming.

There’s not a weak link in the cast and not a performance without subtle shadings. McDormand’s altered body language to show Margaret’s physical discomfort in upscale surroundings is a lovely touch, as is the gradual return of “lace curtain” Mike’s Southie accent when he’s with her. The characters have distancing, even harsh imperfections, but they have redeeming sides, too. The scenes shared by the Southie gals are especially good, with the indefatigable Parsons bringing hilarious sourness to eccentric Dottie. (David Zinn’s costumes for her are a hoot.)

Following up his masterful work earlier this season on The Merchant of Venice, Sullivan connects to the heart of each of the play’s six pithy scenes with brisk, no-nonsense direction.

His scene changes are a marvel of economy, accompanied by bursts of Pogues-style Irish jigs as the masking shrinks into an iris and reopens on a new setting. One such transition — in which a chic, spacious living room by designer John Lee Beatty gives way to the shabby walls and overhead crucifix of a church hall on bingo night — is a gorgeous stroke of stage magic that speaks volumes. The same goes for every aspect of this terrific play in what surely must be its ideal production.           

Venue Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (Through May 8)
Cast Frances McDormand, Tate Donovan, Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Estelle Parsons
Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire