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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Spend an Evening With Hilariously Heartbreaking
Good People

Also see Bob's review of Murder in Green Meadows

A Separate Peace
John Bolger and Ellen McLaughlin
Having seen the Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People almost two years ago, I knew that Lindsay-Abaire had written an audience pleasing comedy-drama with lively character roles which actors could get their teeth into in order to entertain us. It is well made, funny and entertaining, but it lacked the resonance to make it feel really satisfying. My immediate response was, "It was enjoyable and it was nice to see Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons and Becky Ann Baker ...". I told friends that it was "good," "worth seeing". However, the question "just how good is Good People?," stayed with me. Thus, I approached its new George Street Playhouse-Seattle Repertory Theatre production with a bit of trepidation.

I tell you all this in order to make it clear in the strongest possible terms that George Street Artistic Director/Director David Saint has found the heart and rhythm of Lindsay-Abaire's creation and given us a revelatory new production of Good People. In addition to it being richly entertaining, the themes and characterizations in all their rich complexity are clearly revealed, making Good People funnier, more moving, and more intellectually stimulating than I would have thought possible. This play is about so much more than class and predetermination of status by birth. It transcends being merely about societal issues by revealing the individuality of each of its protagonists, the importance of decisions that (particularly) adolescents and young adults make, how our lives are affected by our character, how we affect the lives of others by our actions, and questions what it is that constitutes a good, successful and/or fulfilling existence. And it is funny as it is moving. Almost the entire second act is composed of one extended, powerful scene that over a period of forty-five minutes builds to a shattering crescendo. In itself, It is a powerful one act play, and it is also the integral heart of the outstanding full length play that surrounds it. It would be wrong for me to go any further before noting the enormous contribution to all this of the towering performance of Ellen McLaughlin in the central role of Margaret (Margie) Walsh. More to come about her later.

Good People is set in the present in the poor, ethnically Irish South Boston Lower End and the ritzy suburb of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Fifty-year-old Margie Walsh is a feisty, unmarried "Southie" who is down on her luck. Margie has the sole responsibility for the care and feeding of her thirty-three year old, severely retarded daughter. After repeated warnings, Margie is being fired from her job as a cashier in a dollar store because of her chronic lateness. The latter is the result of the indolent repeated late arrival at her apartment of Dottie, her friend and landlady, whom Margie pays to provide daycare for Joyce. Another friend, Jean, has run into the successful Dr. Mikey Dillon at a luncheon at the hotel where she works. Mikey was Margie's high school friend who got out of the neighborhood by going to U Penn and then becoming a doctor, and had returned to Boston at some point unbeknownst to her. Jean suggests that Margie contact him as he would likely be able to help her find a job.

The desperate Margie, unable to pay her rent, shows up at Mikey Dillon's office after he fails to respond to her phone messages. They spar. Mikey professes being unable to help her, but she does manage to get him to invite her to his Chestnut Hill home for the birthday party that he has let drop that his wife is making him for him. She figures that one of his rich doctor friends might find some work for her. When Mikey later calls and tells her that the party has been cancelled because his six-year-old daughter is ill, Margie does not believe him. She decides to go out to his Chestnut Hill home on the night that the party was scheduled.

The Margie Walsh of Ellen McLaughlin is a fully realized and integrated compendium of an extraordinary number of traits and feelings. We admire her for her independence, generosity of spirit, work ethic, and embrace of her life while we abjure her placid refusal to face realities, and the bad judgment which is the prime cause of her woes. Employing movement, gestures and vocal inflections, McLaughlin conveys to us that the high-spirited Margie is being physically worn down by her plight, and only barely holding on to the spirit which has made her life acceptable to her. It is in the extended second act opening scene which begins with Margie's arrival at the home of Mikey and his wife that McLaughlin's performance raises Good People to new heights. As the situation into which she has forced herself plays out, Margie desperately employs an arsenal of tactics in an effort to improve her situation and that of her daughter. Her behaviors and emotions run a wide gamut. Neither she nor Mikey and Kate do themselves proud. However, by the time this scene has run its course, Margie will come to know who she is and resolutely embrace who she will be for the rest of her life. Lindsay-Abaire's writing and McLaughlin's bravura performance demonstrate that our character is our destiny.

Mikey and, especially, Kate also come to better know themselves. And we get to see that it is not only poor "Southies" who make decisions which harm themselves. John Bolger clearly and convincingly limns a Mikey who does not have the ability to care for anyone other than himself. Yes, Mikey is the "villain" of the piece. However, Bolger's very human and believable Mikey does not consider himself evil. There is a price to pay for being a person who is unable to care about or consider the needs of others. The saddest thing, both in life and the world of Good People, is that there will always be other people who have to pay a high price because of the behavior of such a person. Zakiya Young fully conveys the good breeding, graciousness and intelligence of Mikey's much younger wife. Young is fully up to the task of revealing hidden characteristics when the time comes for her to do so.

Then there are the three "Southies" who play important roles in Margie's life. We mostly meet them throughout the play playing bingo at the local parish church. Marianne Owen is Jean, Margie's closest friend, and Cynthia Lauren Tewes is Dottie, her landlady and the hired caregiver for her daughter. Each creates a distinctive, vivid character, and captures Lindsay-Abaire's sharp humor. in addition to providing the lively and important presence of "Southies," all play important roles in the plot. Eric Riedmann plays the young Stevie, the store manager who is forced to fire Margie, but still plays Bingo with her with a likeable verisimilitude.

The impressively elaborate and supple automated scenery by James Youmans encompasses the alley behind a retail store, Margie's apartment, the parish bingo room, Mikey's office, and the fancy house on Chestnut Hill (whose journey from the rear stage wall to the foot of the stage makes for a delightful visual). There are also moving panels on which appear projections of Boston neighborhoods. The artful class- and taste-reflecting costumes by David Murin reach their apogee with the outfit that Margie wears to the house on Chestnut Hill. It includes a brown leather skirt, a loose at the bodice lingerie-like black camisole with shoulder straps under a short sleeved patterned rust colored polyester open wrap, and black hose (with a run).

Having been totally delighted by Lindsay-Abaire's weird, wacky and poignant comedies Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo, and Wonder of the World and not so taken with his earnest, soapy Rabbit Hole, I am pleased to note that Good People is awash with hilarious and integral character-driven humor which runs through even its weightiest dramatic scenes.

With director David Saint and Ellen McLaughlin now on board, it is apparent that David Lindsay Abaire's Good People is one of the very best of recent American plays.

Good People continues performances (Evenings Tuesday - Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm (except 2/24)/ Mats: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 2 pm (except 2/14) through February 24, 2013, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.

Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by David Saint

Cast
Margaret………………Ellen McLaughlin
Stevie……………………..Eric Riedmann
Dottie……………Cynthia Lauren Tewes
Jean…………………….. Marianne Owen
Mike…………………………..John Bolger
Kate…………………………Zakiya Young


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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