Did you know that the privileged owe their good fortunes, literal and not, to factors other than their awesomeness? In case you’re still unconvinced, David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) has clumsily dramatized the concept in his finger-wagging, liberal guilt-pricking, poorly written new play, Good People, expertly acted in MTC’s fine production at the Samuel J. Friedman; it centers on a girl from South Boston, Margie (Frances McDormand), who butts heads with a high-school ex, Mike (Tate Donovan), recently returned to town as a doctor, living in a nicer neighborhood of Boston in a big house with his pretty young wife and healthy daughter (compared to Margie’s, who is “retarded”), where they have insured vases and fine wines.
In heavily underlined contrast to that affluence, Margie and her friends (the excellent Becky Ann Baker and phenomenal Estelle Parsons) are worn-out women, steeped in cigarettes, coffee and curse words, who look like they were born wrung-out: in their heavy eyes, faces, shoulders and voices, they seem to carry the miseries of all generations past—even the neighbors’, too. Their community is tiny, where even the local hobos and winos are old classmates, and your boss at the dollar store, where you have to fight tooth and nail to keep a measly $9.20/hr. job, is a friend’s son. The dialogue is rife with at least a dozen names of random neighbors we never meet, all Irish.
When Margie and Mikey re-unite—living amid the misery of the current economic downturn, with layoffs and cut-back shifts, Margie is desperately searching for a job, any job—they are both intensely, anxiously aware of their class differences: they pick over each other’s words, looking for insults, and passive-aggressively bust each other’s balls. They dance around each other, verbally, like fighters—though with the grace of Rogers and Astiare—looking to land quick jabs while avoiding getting hit. It’s not until the climax that they come to full-on blows, with the melodramatic reveal of buried secrets. The idea is this: circumstances the poor can’t control are what perpetuate poverty. We all make bad choices, but some of us get away with them and others don’t. Poverty—it could happen to you! Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t work this into his script so much as he rams it in.
The title refers to the noble poor, who look out for each other while the well-to-do abandon them; Good People is another work of art about the nobility of poverty, meant to assuage any pangs of guilt among the wealthy. (Wouldn’t you rather be poor with friends than rich and having marital troubles? See at least as far back as You Can’t Take It With You.) Indeed, it’s hard not to read the play as the Pulitzer-prized Lindsay-Abaire, very successful and presumably quite comfortable (the film adaptation of Rabbit Hole was recently nominated for an Oscar), working through his own (Catholic?) guilt. How else to interpret the handmade rabbit that’s smashed to pieces in Act II? Or the rich man, to whom it was given and who petulantly chucks it against a mantelpiece, shouting that he doesn’t want it?