Even Good People Do Bad

03/16/2011 4:00 AM |

Good People
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole recently won the Pulitzer Prize, and it isn’t a bad piece of writing; it sets small goals for itself and fulfills them well enough. Lindsay-Abaire started out penning whimsical pieces that showcased Marylouise Burke and J. Smith-Cameron, and he offers just enough for actors to chew on in his solid little scripts; his new play, Good People (through May 8), is headlined by Frances McDormand as Margaret, a working class South Boston mother who finds herself out of work and tries to hit up old boyfriend Mike (Tate Donovan) for a job. In the first long scene between Margaret and Mike, which takes place in Mike’s office, Lindsay-Abaire skillfully charts out their moment-by-moment interactions, and the flux of emotions between the former lovers is just volatile enough to be compelling. But John Lee Beatty’s scenic design speeds us through so many set changes so quickly, from an alley behind a dollar store to a well-appointed suburban home, that it finally becomes clear that the biggest irony in Good People isn’t the ebb and flow between Margaret and Mike but the fact that a play about a woman who is so desperate for any kind of work has been produced by Manhattan Theatre Club on a scale that could support a small army of such women for several years.

Good People is the kind of play that sets up situation after situation between carefully crafted characters until all we can do is wait for some kind of climax that might illuminate what we’ve just been watching and enjoying; unfortunately, when Lindsay-Abaire comes to the point in his comedy-drama when he needs to make a choice about how to bring things to a head, he retreats to a kind of noble melodrama that suggests that before writing the play he watched something like Ben Affleck’s The Town and then overdosed on a Norma Shearer movie marathon on TCM. McDormand’s tough character winds up being too proud and good to be anything but the chin-up heroine of a bygone stage and screen tradition, and all the verisimilitude of the play’s Boston background eventually goes for naught. That’s not to say that it isn’t amusing watching Estelle Parsons mug around the stage as McDormand’s slightly dippy landlady, or Becky Ann Baker play her likably bully-like female friend, and McDormand acquits herself ably, but this is far from her usual territory; she can’t help looking sheepish when the play turns sentimental. Lindsay-Abaire’s mode of writing is more suited to the sour milk earnestness of Cynthia Nixon, who made such a success in his Rabbit Hole on stage, whereas McDormand always seems to be trying to sniff out something closer to reality in this glossy, inoffensive vehicle. Good People can be mildly exciting on the level of craft, in the way that the scenes are always slightly longer and more filled with detours than you expect, but in the end it all amounts to very little.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)