Good People: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
A tremendous role for Frances McDormand is just one of many rewards in this exceptionally fine new play from the writer of "Rabbit Hole."

Frances McDormand stars in David Lindsay-Abaire's terrific play about working-class American struggles.

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

Bringing the same clear-eyed emotional observation that distinguished his Pulitzer winner, Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire has crafted another penetrating drama about deeply relatable issues, albeit this time 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 personal 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 elegant Chestnut Hill.

The same can't be said for Margaret (McDormand), who has bounced between 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. Even when pleading for her livelihood, Margaret is a passive-aggressive bully.

But perhaps the most wonderful quality about 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 own deadbeat son needing a home. Without getting into belabored exposition, Lindsay-Abaire excels at sketching an environment in which almost everyone is either 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 African-American woman from a privileged background, Kate digs for stories from a past Mike had 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 struggle 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 Irish" Mike's Southie accent when he's with her. All the characters have their distancing, even harsh imperfections, but they all have redeeming sides too. The scenes shared by the Southie gals are especially good, with the indefatigable Parsons bringing hilarious sourness to crabby eccentric Dottie. (David Zinn's costumes for her are a hoot.)

Following up on 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 in his 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 designer John Lee Beatty's chic, spacious living room for Mike and Kate 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 must surely 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
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Pat Collins
Sound designer: Jill BC DuBoff
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club