From left, Becky Ann Baker, Estelle Parsons and Frances McDormand in 'Good People.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK – Although it has its moments of truth and humor, has been sagely directed by Daniel Sullivan and is being well performed by some of New York’s finest actors, David Lindsay-Abaires’ new play, "Good People," is a disappointment.
Mr. Lindsay-Abaires’ last play, "Rabbit Hole" about a couple dealing with the accidental lost of a child, was a much superior work, winning him a Pulitzer Prize. It recently was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman.
With "Good People," Mr. Lindsay-Abaire again returns to the subject of loss – this time job loss – and class disaffection. Set in the playwright’s native South Boston’s Lower End, where the recession has taken a severe toll, we meet Margaret (Francis McDormand), Mr. Lindsay-Abaires’ everywoman of the economic collapse.
A 50-year-old single mother who has just lost her $9.20-an- hour job as a cashier at the local 99 Cent Store, Margaret has just been handed her walking papers by a sympathetic but firm boss (Patrick Carroll) because of chronic lateness, which was the result of laxness on the part of her child care-giver and landlady Dottie (Estelle Parsons), whom she relies on to babysit her mentally challenged teenage daughter. Suddenly, Margaret is forced to face one of today’s tough life challenges: finding new employment in a slim job market.
A gossipy waitress friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) tells Margaret that she recently ran into an old beau of hers, Mike (Tate Donovan), a former Southie turned successful Boston physician. Jean urges Margaret to contact him about a job, thus setting Mr. Lindsay-Abaires’ play and Margaret’s life into motion. In a series of scenes set in local South Boston kitchens and church bingo parlors, as well as in Mike’s office and his expensive Chestnut Hill home, all deftly designed by John Lee Beatty, we follow Margaret on her frustrating pursuit of employment.
In Margaret, Mr. Lindsay Abaire creates a unique, vital and outspoken character. For all her slyness, big and little malefactions and questionable honesty, she always seems human and, at times, wickedly funny. Yet, Mr. Lindsay-Abaires never justifies her public or private failings, though he does make clear the unfair moral ambiguities that drove Mike out of South Boston and onto the road to success, and the sad vagaries of life that have left Margaret stranded behind.
Although we are always sympathetic to Margaret’s plight, playwright Lindsay-Abaires’ effort to micro-size a contemporary phenomenon like the unemployment crisis into one character lacks dramatic sinew. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire keeps raising the play’s ante, but the conflicts of "Good People" seem manipulative and predictable; there are no real surprises in his play. He doesn’t seem to be able to blend the current economic blight and his characters’ personal struggles into a believable or engrossing narrative.
The first-rate players all do yeoman-like work, especially the extraordinary Ms. McDormand and the 82-year-old Estelle Parsons as her foul-mouthed Southie crony. The cast never lets down "Good People"; it is Mr. Lindsay-Abaires’ play that sadly leaves a good deal to be desired.
It should be noted that "Good People" does have some strong language and a few unfunny, futile attempts at off-color humor. "Good People" plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on W. 47th St. through May 8.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.