Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Good People only good, or is it actually great? (Pre-occupied by Occupy, Part 2)

At home in Southie with Lindsay-Abaire's Good People. . .  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

Craft is such a rare thing in a new play that whenever it appears, I feel (to quote a certain highly relevant author) that attention must be paid.  And I can't think of a better-crafted new play - at least in the past few years - than David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, which completes its run at the Huntington this weekend.  The drama's quality is slightly muted, I think, by a flawed production helmed (somewhat underwhelmingly) by Kate Whoriskey, whose P.C. pedigree (ART Institute, Lynn Nottage, et al.) probably explains her fumbling of Lindsay-Abaire's satiric valentine to the battered souls of Southie (whose denizens are his eponymous good people). Actually, for half the play Whoriskey can coast on the talent and experience of two of our best local actresses, who deliver an expert and fully-realized vision of the Southie sisterhood; it's when Lindsay-Abaire shifts his sights toward the western 'burbs that Whoriskey stumbles (she's from Harvard by way of Acton, a wealthy exurb with a median household income roughly twice Boston's).  Still, the dazzle of the Huntington's production values (and Alexander Dodge's deadly-accurate set) put over the second act for the most part, and perhaps even highlight some of the script's less-obvious strengths.

Among these qualities (pardon me if I sound like I'm purring) are memorable characters and a realistic, recognizable milieu; a theme (remember those?); and what's more, a refreshingly current political resonance. That Lindsay-Abaire clearly intends his play as a political statement - and what's more an accessible, up-to-the-minute political statement that you don't need an advanced degree to decipher - seems to have given a few critics pause, however.  Not that they have advanced degrees themselves (please!), but they seem uncertain how to broach the delicate question of class, and how it maps to education, in a town that is always denying it even while relying on it to oppress the locals.

For let's be honest about the Athens of America - it's really the Athens of Apartheid, where clear demarcations - often simple streets, like Huntington, Mass, or Dot Ave. - function as virtual Mason-Dixon lines defining a topology of race, class, and educational achievement as clearly and cleanly as the East River cleaves Manhattan from Queens.

What's more, within the ramparts of our ethnic fiefs a deep-rooted class trauma often simmers (and is savored), while dueling cults of authenticity duke it out in the pages of the press and those few arenas where our warring tribes must cross paths (and where the Great Famine unconsciously competes with slavery, for example, which in turn goes head-to-head with the Holocaust).

Or is that quite accurate - do we really think of the Irish Famine as a holocaust, as a British-engineered  genocide-by-other-means?  Indeed, perhaps that strange gap in the sympathies of the local anglophile academy goes a long way to explaining the strange, resentful history of the Irish in Boston: even their holocaust doesn't get any respect (it certainly didn't get a decent memorial!).

Sorry for the digression, but such thoughts inevitably occur while watching Good People.  You can tell Lindsay-Abaire has Southie in his bones, and so renders a panorama of his hometown's defeated dysfunction that's almost resplendent in its detail.  When we meet his heroine, for instance, she is desperately attempting to talk her way out of being fired from her job at a dollar store.  The pretty but weather-beaten Margie (a touchingly grim Johanna Day) has her deadpan street wiles, of course, and an excuse for every lapse - not to mention the beyond-bitter wit of worldly endurance.  But it's all no use; her up-and-coming, baby-faced manager lets her go, even though he's from the neighborhood, too - and so knows only too well what a 50-something Southie girl with a high school education is up against in the globalized economy: essentially, at the dollar store she was already clinging to its bottom rung.

But then things have been going wrong for Margie for a long time, and Lindsay-Abaire details with calm accuracy her cascade of misfortunes: she has a mentally challenged adult daughter at home, no husband, an unreliable baby-sitter, bills from dental work - the kinds of setbacks that the better-heeled can take in stride, but which easily morph into a perfect financial storm for those living sans a safety net.

In a series of poignant, hilariously pointed scenes, however - that rumble on and off a giant loading dock, appropriately enough for Southie - Margie's longtime "frenemies" Jean (Karen MacDonald, never better in an aging-rock-chick wig) and her feckless landlady, the appropriately-nicknamed "Dottie" (Nancy E. Carroll, ditto) suggest a possible lifeline - an old flame of Margie's named Mike fought his way out of Southie years ago, and is now a successful doctor with a trophy wife in Chestnut Hill.  Surely he must know of some low level job somewhere for someone like Margie - and after all, isn't he still "good people," as the Southie loyalists like to call their own?

But does Mike still count as "good people"?  That's the question Lindsay-Abaire probes with a colder and sharper scalpel as the play progresses.  At first Mike's and Margie's encounters only amount to a sad comedy of her cluelessness in the new professional class (she drops awkward f-bombs, and imagines that Mike hires his own cleaning staff); but slowly the playwright closes in on a curious twist in this former Southie boy's psyche: he, too, wants to believe he's "good people," that inside he's still authentic, still Southie, that he can still be counted on.

But can you still be authentically Southie if you live in Chestnut Hill?  Is it possible to be true to blue-collar roots while chasing a white-collar paycheck?  A lot of people don't see that contradiction as a conflict, frankly - as I've noted before, outspoken conservative avatars like David Brooks, and even Republican hacks like Chris Christie, are huge Bruce Springsteen fans, for instance. Indeed, Lindsay-Abaire has probably pinned a particularly delusional breed of boomer on the point of his playwriting quill in Good People.

So with this challenge to his "authenticity," Margie has Mike - well, perhaps not just where she wants him, true; but he also has trouble struggling off this particular social hook, and soon enough Margie finds herself invited to a party at his deluxe digs that she otherwise would never have been asked to.

 . . . and at home with the not-so-good people in Chestnut Hill.

Of course, you could argue she invited herself - indeed, when Mike cancels the party for the sake of his ill daughter, Margie takes this as a transparent ruse to ditch her, and shows up at his front door anyway.  Only it wasn't a ruse, and so she finds herself alone in Alexander's Dodge's wickedly rendered, white-and-taupe temple to yuppie chic (above) - along with Mike's young wife (who is black, as Margie flatly notes), nibbling at a full party's worth of cheese and red wine, and mulling whether or not to reveal certain secrets about her host's Southie past that might undo forever his hard-won upper-class status.

It's here that, admittedly, the production loses focus, largely because thespians Michael Laurence and Rachael Holmes (good actors both) are simply miscast as Mike and his wife Kate - and obviously miscast, at that.  Laurence struggles to convey the Southie boy within Mike's gleaming yuppie shell, and Holmes seems to take at happy face value a character who must, at some level, be rather bitterly self-aware.  And director Whoriskey not only misses much of the scene's sarcasm toward the educated classes (something that, btw, Kirsten Greenidge missed as well in The Luck of the Irish), but seems utterly blind to the deeper undertow of Lindsay-Abaire's second-act action.  For as Margie toys with unveiling exactly how her former flame spent his misspent youth, we can sense instinctively something of the ugly Southie street fighter should rise again in Mike (for it's clear he hasn't really left the old neighborhood behind - can anyone, ever?).  Indeed, by the end of the act, I'd argue the cozy Chestnut Hill nest of Mike and Kate should be in shambles - and revealed as something of a sham, just as Mike's libertarian self-image is; for it turns out Mike was only able to scramble up the collegiate ladder thanks to certain acts (and certain attitudes) being forgotten, or forgiven, long ago.  In a pungent line, Margie explains, Mike "always had someone looking out the window for him."  Margie herself was not so lucky, of course - so now while she and Mike both have a sick daughter upstairs, they're on opposite sides of the class divide.

That is only one of many parallels and subtle contrasts in Lindsay-Abaire's clever structure (and don't worry, he does eventually reveal who counts as "good people," and who does not).  Indeed, sometimes I worried that his play was almost schematic in places (just as occasionally it dawdles a bit here and there in local arcana).  But then again, at this point I'm not about to look a gift horse in the mouth; years ago, Good People would have counted as merely a good play; today, it feels border-line great. Which makes me wonder just how far Lindsay-Abaire can go.  The Pulitzer he won for his previous opus, Rabbit Hole, struck many as premature - but I'd argue he has earned it retro-actively with this particular script.  Perhaps, I admit, his drama deserved better than Whoriskey's production - but that doesn't stop me from hoping he has another like this one in his back drawer, or perhaps in the works, even as we speak.


  1. Mike was played by Michael Laurence. Nick Westrate played Stevie.