Only David Lindsay-Abaire could write scenes of downtrodden Southie (South Boston, or “Bah-ston” as its citizens might say) women talkin’ shit at a church bingo night without it being patently insulting. As sensitive a modern playwright as can be heard these days, the setups for the scenes in his grandly entertaining Good People—his best work to date—sound like doomed-to-fail, ivory tower-slanted scenarios: a minimum-wage employee being fired for dismal work, an uneasy meeting of old flames (one of which has a spouse of a different race), the needs of a child with a major disability. But Lindsay-Abaire is after something bigger than trite blue-vs.-white-collar advantages and disadvantages. Instead of holding up the play’s lead character Margaret (Frances McDormand) as a victim of hard luck, the playwright shrewdly uses her as an example of how choices can make or break us, and the smallest twists of fate determine our path.
These are the very factors that made his Rabbit Hole so enveloping years back. Often considered a featherweight choice for the Pulitzer, I always found it to be a refreshing one: a play about grief and recovery that doesn’t smother the audience in weepfest bathos (yet why Lindsay-Abaire dismantled so much of its appeal in adapting it to the screen to wan effect this past year is a head-scratcher). They also share a key factor: director Daniel Sullivan, the finest ensemble helmer there is, a creator so undaunted by celebrity he can weave actors like Al Pacino (The Merchant of Venice) and Laura Linney (Time Stands Still) into a full cast without the viewer ever contemplating their stardom for a moment.
Sullivan’s expert guiding hand is evident throughout Good People, even from the opening scene in which Margaret, seemingly having a genial chat with her supervisor, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), gets the boot at work. In the space of about five minutes, McDormand, in a supple, funny, knowing portrayal, already convinces us that Margaret is nobody’s fool, yet her own worst enemy. Deeply in debt, she joins her Southie gal pals (Becky Ann Baker and Estelle Parsons), the latter of whom is her landlady, in rounds of bingo and coffee talk, and through the gossip mill learns that Mike (Tate Donovan), a teen fling, is now a bigshot doctor who lives in the ’burbs. Margaret, or “Maw-gee” as she is often referred, decides to look him up and ingratiate herself to him again, enough so to be invited to a fancy party, in which she takes him up on a passing observation that friends of his might be hiring.
More events occur, but they’re best left unspoiled, just like its lead character, and if the proceedings sound a bit too Roseanne-ish (never mind the presence of Parsons), the production is so tautly conceived, it only reminds you of that series’s best attributes. Any native of a downtrodden city will tell you that there’s an undeniably authentic quality to the work here: the way women clutch their bingo cards, but don’t quite crumple them up in the hopes of an incorrect win, the one major corporate factory that exists for everyone to tell you to apply to, the kooky lady who makes crafts to sell in public for spare cash. (The cast is right on point, though Parsons’s unvaried dizzy act is getting close to parody at this point.) But the upscale characters seem just right too: Donovan, who has excellent chemistry with McDormand, and Renee Elise Goldsberry as his clipped, judicious wife, are never drawn with broad strokes or as points of derision; they are as sympathetic as their less financially stable counterparts.
It is McDormand, though, who holds the piece so firmly together. Whether solemnly accepting her uncultured background (“I didn’t go to U. Anywhere,” she says in one heartfelt exchange with Donovan about education) or inquiring about a lofty cheese tray she may never fully comprehend, the performance is fully understood from the inside out. As an actress, she is so complete in detail she nearly derails one key moment; when handed a glass of red wine, McDormand subtly makes you realize that this is Margaret’s possible first time ever having one, with no actorly gestures or overt behavior, and it turns out to be wholly true. And like any fine wine, it seems McDormand just gets better with age.
Good People is now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th St.) in New York City through May 8. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat 8pm, Wed, Sat & Sun at 2pm. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission. For tickets, click here.