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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
David Saint has masterfully directed this co-production with the Seattle Repertory Company (where it will go following this engagement), a production that marks a high point in his career at George Street’s artistic director, as well as a peak for the George Street Playhouse.
With Good People, Lindsay-Abaire focuses on a very timely and topical issue: the gap between the rich and the poor, the successful and those without prospects. While you may only think you know to whom the title refers for most of the play, the concept of what is meant by being or doing good and what is acceptably or inherently right, eventually and inevitably becomes the point in this multi-layered comedy-drama. From my perspective, this production succeeds as well, if not more so than in its world premiere on Broadway. Or maybe I just realize how really exceptional is this play.
It doesn’t seem that life can get much worse for Margaret (Ellen McLaughlin), a fifty year old single mom trying to care of her mentally challenged adult daughter (unseen.) Because she had to rely on her unreliable landlady Dottie (Cynthia Lauren Tewes) to stay with her daughter while she went to work, she is fired from her job as a cashier at the local Dollar Store for being consistently late.
Unfortunately, her excuses don’t work as an excuse for the otherwise compassionate store manager Stevie (Eric Riedmann) whose own job, as he explains it, is on the line. Set behind the Dollar Store, this opening scene between two adults who have known each other since childhood also opens our hearts to the situation confronting Margaret.
Margaret’s prospects for finding another job are not great even though she is willing to walk up and down Main Street filling out applications. While Dottie professes to be Margaret’s friend and enjoys sitting in her kitchen and gabbing with her and another neighborhood friend Jean (Marianne Owen), she considers evicting Margaret if she can’t come up with the rent in order to give the apartment to her unemployed son.
A high-school drop-out, Margaret is basically without skills. However, a bright prospect suddenly appears in her no-exit life in South Boston’s Lower End where the residents are known as “southies.” When Margaret learns that Mike (John Bolger), a bright young man with whom she went to school and had a short romantic fling before he went to college, is now a medical doctor with a practice in Boston, she grasps at this opportunity to reach out to him. Would he be able to either employ her or at least help her get a job? With its skillfully written, sharp-as-a-tack dialogue, the play begins to vibrate with a palpable tension when Margaret visits Mike’s office.
Through the desperate, unsettling manner in which the insecure but determined Margaret tries to persuade Mike to help her, we can see how Lindsay-Abaire is using this as a means to reveal not only the guarded admiration for those who rise above their environment, but also to expose the resentment, jealousy and sense of betrayal felt by those who have not had the good fortune to escape. Margaret’s willingness to go the distance, no matter how assertive or even scarily aggressive, is buoyed by her instinctively funny, feisty personality – one that allows her to follow a rather risky path to achieve her end.
To see the many facets of this character in action is a credit to McLaughlin’s on-the-mark performance (Frances McDormand won the Tony for Best Actress in this role), one that not only stands on its own with the unique flavor of someone raised in South Boston, but also on its own as she makes us feel what she is feeling in Margaret’s passionate displays of tenacity. McLaughlin, who is famed for making a memorable landing on Broadway as the Angel in Angels in America, and has continued her impressive career as an actor and as a playwright, is quite simply superb as the play’s ever-struggling center-piece.
With this production’s tie to the Seattle Rep, it is easy to understand the casting of three actors who have strong Seattle credits. More importantly, it gives George Street audiences a chance to see a trio of actors who have made their mark in the northwest and can now wow us. Tewes is a hoot – a cross between Patsy Kelly and Tugboat Annie – as the affably mercenary landlady who, as a side business, crafts bunnies with googly eyes to sell at local street markets. Owen’s performance is a sass-based gem as Margaret’s best friend who urges Margaret to reconnect with Mike. Margaret, Jean and Dottie are regulars at Bingo at the neighborhood church. Among the issues that define their snappy dialogue is wondering why Steve also goes for Bingo, a clever bit of plotting that gives the very fine Riedmann a chance to become more than a peripheral character.
Bolger, who was impressive as Juror 12 in Twelve Angry Men last season at George Street, has once again gotten to the gritty core of a character as the increasingly agitated Mike whose soon realizes that he may have opened himself up to an uncomfortable situation by inviting Margaret to his home. Their past and his, specifically in regard to an incident when he was a tough street kid, surfaces with unexpected results in front of his beautiful African-American wife Kate, as played with upper-crust geniality by Zakiya Young. The resolve is, at the very least, conspired to make us re-think the way our presumably moral directions and ethical decisions can and do determine who are really the good people among us.
Not the least of this production’s many attributes is the stunning physical production, particularly the frame provided by designer James Youmans highlighted by a black and white virtual tour of the Boston environs in which the play takes place that serves as visual intros for the four evocative sets – the back alley of the Dollar Store, the kitchen of Margaret’s apartment, the Bingo parlor, the doctor’s office and his expensively furnished home in Chestnut Hill, MA.
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