Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 3, 2011
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Pat Collins. Sound design by Jill BC DuBoff. Dialect coach Charlotte Fleck. Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll, Tate Donovan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Frances McDormand, Estelle Parsons.
The turning point in question comes when Kate, played by the magnetic Renée Elise Goldsberry, is forced to face questions that have never before crossed her mind. She knew that her successful doctor husband, Mike (Tate Donovan), grew up on Boston’s South Side and had a past he wasn’t proud of, but not the extent of the life he left behind. That kind of poverty, bullying, and hopelessness, subsisting on the knowledge that each day could lead to no other, has forever been a foreign concept to her. But when she meets Margaret (Frances McDormand), Mike’s childhood friend and first serious girlfriend, it all becomes terrifyingly real.
Unlike Mike, Margaret didn’t “get out.” She’s barely stayed afloat for the last three decades or so, drifting from job to job because of circumstances that are always just beyond her control: her deadbeat husband, the babysitter upstairs who just can’t show up on time, and the mentally disabled daughter who — surprise! — just happens to be exactly the age necessary for her to be Mike’s. From the throne room of her tony Chestnut Hill manse, Kate learns in a way she never thought she would the first- and second-hand devastation that desperation can lead to. And in dealing with both the crazed Margaret and the husband she’s never really known, Kate now finds herself adrift on a sea of her own crippling uncertainty.
Thank goodness. If not for this scene and Goldsberry’s masterful portrayal, Good People would be nothing more than a hollow rant against the American dream and all those who believe that how you’re born is not necessarily how you’ll die. Otherwise, from the first scene onward, in which the milquetoast Stevie (a bland Patrick Carroll) fires Margaret from her job at the dollar store because she’s so often late, Lindsay-Abaire is trying to construct a black-and-white theatrical pity party as envisioned through his own fish-eye lens.
Margaret has sympathizers, sure, in her plain-spoken friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and her dotty upstairs neighbor Dottie (Estelle Parsons), the latter of whom transforms planting pots into cuddly little Styrofoam rabbits to help make ends meet. But, as the most Lindsay-Abaire-ian characters, they’re written and played as thread-thin nonentities, easily forgotten despite their actresses’ heroic attempts to apply their own, supple personalities onto them.
The person you’re supposed to remember (and seethe at), Mike, who in his first meeting with Margaret in years, at his office when she comes begging for a job, all but reeks of nouveau-riche, favor-doing condescension. This confrontation is supposed to show the depravity to which both the fortunate and the un- alike are driven as a result of factors out of their hands (you know: dedication, discipline, drive, and so on). But it goes so far in painting Mike as a high-nosed elite and Margaret as an unwitting maggot, who’s stopped only from being as good as Mike because he and those like him don’t give her everything she wants or needs, that the play becomes a solid social tract and instantly uninteresting as a story.
It’s utterly unsurprising that he invites her to a swank party, where one of his friends might grace her with a job, only to cancel the next day — a move his attitude convinces her is motivated by status rather than his stated excuse (an ill daughter). That she then barges to his house — bringing about the gripping confrontation scene — only extends the sitcom-level plotting further into eye-rolling territory. Donovan makes Mike as sensible as he can, which isn’t much considering he doesn’t do much besides get steamed about Margaret calling him “lace-curtain,” but it’s not sufficient to provide Margaret with the big foil she — to say nothing of the theatre — requires.
McDormand is no better energizing this inert premise, though in fairness she is miscast. As an actress onscreen (including her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo) and onstage (The Country Girl three years ago), she’s revealed a smoldering fire more than a blazing one, the kind that emits smokescreens of subtlety around unique women who don’t want to admit how deep they feel. But Margaret’s is not a subtle soul, and when played by an actress of gifts as specific and detailed as McDormand, you’re forced to see her not as a victim but as the architect of her own fate — exactly what Lindsay-Abaire spends nearly two hours arguing against.
Sullivan has staged the play well enough, and John Lee Beatty has worked his typical magic with an elaborate series of turntables that instantly transform the stage from a back alley to a tenement kitchen to a bingo parlor to Chestnut Hill and back again. But it’s the movement of a very different kind, within Margaret’s pained existence, that we need to see most, and that never swirls as readily. It remains fixed, insisting we come to meet it despite its not providing us a single compelling argument to do so.
Goldsberry aside, that’s why Kat is so provocative. When we first meet her, we don’t know who she is, what she means, or who’s side she’s on. That’s because she doesn’t know: She doesn’t hold preconceptions of any kind, but instead judges the world and the people in it by their words and their actions, and is never afraid to change her opinions and outlook as new circumstances dictate. We discover Kate as she discovers herself and comes to terms with what she’s up against: other people determining why and how she’ll live. She knows that taking her future into her own hands is not a choice she makes accidentally, and that’s the lesson that Margaret, like Good People itself, needs to accept most.