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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Twenty-something playwright Jessica Goldberg has a knack for often ironic dialogue and tapping into the struggles faced by people of her own generation in a variety of situations. Good Thing, her fourth play and the always worth watching New Group's season opener, again has Goldberg ambitiously juggling multiple plot threads and issues. The good news about Good Thing is that it is a cut above her last effort, The Hologram Theory (see link below) which suffered from rambling excesses, underwhelming performances and direction.
With Jo Bonney at the helm and a cast that's sharply attuned to its characters, Good Thing has every opportunity to engage the audience. And so it does, with mounting tension that includes an outburst that causes enough physical havoc to make you wonder if you've stumbled into a Sam Shepard play. Even though Good Thing leads to an ultimately disappointing denouement, its brief scenes move forward briskly and are punctuated throughout with considerable humor.
The construct of the play alternates and eventually connects the stories of a group of disadvantaged people in their early twenties and a middle aged professional couple. All live in Albany, New York and yearn for the good things in life but fate keeps throwing them bad curves (including the self-inflicted wound of drug addiction).
The two kitchens in which the action takes place are as unalike as the lives of their occupants — one shabby and run down, the other clean and modern. Though located in different parts of town, the two kitchens are side by side on stage and thus always visible to the audience.
The shabby quarters house the Generation X-ers — Dean (Hamish Linklater) who works at some unspecified job that's obviously unworthy of his 1370 S.A.T scores while keeping his pregnant wife Mary (Cara Buono) under lock and key, with his crackhead younger brother Bobby (Chris Messina) keeping watch. Hamish Linklater captures the underlying decency in the seething cauldron of discontent Dean has become. Chris Messina's Bobby has many of the ticks and schticks, but none of the likeability, of Mark Ruffalo's Warren in Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth (see link below), and Buono has some moving moments as the emotionally fragile mother-to-be).
Even before we find out the reason for the bizarre situation of the locked-up wife, it's quite apparent that Dean's book smarts are not paired with common sense, coping skills. In fact, his emotional state isn't much sturdier than his totally out of it brother's.
In the well-appointed kitchen we have Nancy and John Roy (the always reliable Betsy Aidem and John Rothman). As the kitchen across the stage is dark and dreary, theirs is brightened by rays of sunlight peeking through the sheer curtained window. But while this couple's life seems to exemplify the title, it too is shadowed. The mystery of Nancy and John's marital discord, like the mystery of Mary's being locked up, doesn't take long to unravel; and when it does, it isn't particularly surprising or novel.
The interest in both situation stems from the parallel mirrors Goldberg holds up to these seemingly disconnected lives and the human connecting link, Liz, played with an irresistible mix of impish charm, vulnerability and assertiveness by Alica Goranson. In fact, it's the scenes done with minimal props at the front of the stages, all with Goranson, are the drama's highlights — a shoe store where Liz, having quit college in her third year, now works and where she meets John (her much admired high school guidance counselor) and Nancy. . . a bar where Dean and Liz reconnect three years after their high school romance ended abruptly and without ever having been sexually consummated . . . and the bedroom in Liz's house where they finally have sex which seems to empower Liz to set in motion a scheme that will change everybody's lives.
It is Liz's scheme, a baby exchange, that is in equal parts sensible, ridiculous and self-serving , that brings Dean, Mary, Bobby, and Liz (plus the just born bundle of joy) across the stage and into the Roys' kitchen. That convergence also marks the point at which Ms. Goldberg seems to kick the pole out from underneath the dramatic tent she has erected so that even the director and the actors can't keep it from collapsing. As if the issues of drugs, infidelity and doing the right thing weren't enough, the playwright now adds a new conflict for the brothers. The whole enterprise undergoes a seismic shift from social satire to an insoluble issues-of-the-week- made-for-TV-movie.
Will Bobby kick his crack e habit and grow up to become a functioning, adult? Will that baby really keep Mary drug free and is Dean likely to feel anything but trapped in this marriage? Will Liz direct her energies and intelligence to getting her own life together instead playing Judge Judy with an agenda to Dean and Mary and Nancy and John? What would be best for the baby?
To the playwright's credit she doesn't try to tie any of these by now totally incredible loose threads into a neat knot. Perhaps, as a way of saying "where there's life, there's hope ", she has written a more sure-fire and very personal happy ending scenario. Next month, before the play ends, she and her leading actor, Hamish Linklater, will tie the knot on the play's set which is conveniently located in a church. Now that sounds like a good thing.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED
The Hologram Theory
This Is Our Youth