Off-Broadway, the hottest ticket (and impossible to get into) is “Other Desert Cities” by John Robin Baitz, but right now, on Broadway, the sleeper of the season, and what will probably be the hottest show in town, is playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People”, playing a limited (oh, let’s hope not) run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under the auspices of Manhattan Theatre Club. I wasn’t prepared to be as blown away by this piece, much as I wasn’t prepared several years back to be overwhelmed by another of the author’s plays, also directed by the uber-talented Daniel Sullivan. That play back then was “Rabbit Hole”, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. “Good People” is quite different from “Rabbit Hole”, but it is a quietly powerful play about the way we live now and the vast difference between the haves and the have-nots. It’s themes are universal and timely, and it is populated by a small gifted group of actors, led by the devastatingly brilliant Frances McDormand. Miss McDormand has never been better than this, in a role she disappears into, becoming a different actress than the one you think you know so well. “Good People” is her play, and she runs like the wind with it. She plays Margaret, a blue collar single mother raising a handicapped adult daughter all by herself in South Boston, struggling to eke out a living as a store cashier and barely scraping by. The play begins as she is being let go from her job because of habitual lateness, and then accelerates into a confrontation between the middle/lower class vs. the upper class, told with pathos and humor and wit while never losing sight of the chasm between the classes.
Daniel Sullivan is one of our best theater directors, his work on this season’s “Merchant of Venice” was a joy to behold and he turned that into one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever encountered. Here, he takes a simple story of simple people trying to scrape by, and turns it into a tale for our troubled times, in which everyone fights for scraps of what’s left of the American Dream. “Good People” moves from the back alley of the supermarket, to the kitchen, to the bingo halls of South Boston and eventually to the wealth of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Sullivan’s pacing never flags, and the play feels cinematic at times, with scenes irising in and out throughout. He creates a feeling of empathy for these folks, and brings out the humor in Lindsay-Abaire’s play, which keeps the piece from ever becoming depressing or discomforting. He emphasizes the hope and optimism in the piece, not an easy task with a story like this, in which Margaret, in search of a job, tracks down a former boyfriend, now a successful doctor, and insinuates herself into his life in the hope of scoring a job in his office. It’s a tenuous premise for Margaret at best, but her glimpse into a life she never had, and yet thinks she could have or should have had, turns her into a relentless would-be stalker, which ultimately brings her into the “lace curtain” living room of her former childhood friend’s Chestnut Hill home, which then escalates into a confrontation that becomes so uncomfortable, yet is so skillfully drawn and played, that theatergoers end up on the edge of their seats waiting for the inevitable.
As Margaret, Frances McDormand plays the desperation needed for the role, yet she brings so much more to it-the anger, the envy, the pessimism, the need to believe this was something she could have had and somehow lost track of along the way. As the short-term former boyfriend, now a successful doctor, Tate Donovan is terrific, both amused and wary by Margaret’s attentions after all these years, eventually turning hostile and angry by her gall and her insinuations. His wife, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, is a model of cool sophistication, yet played with a tenuous dubiousness that belies trouble underneath. Estelle Parsons is a gem as Margaret’s landlady, whose hobby is making rabbit puppets which she sells at the bingo table, and Becky Ann Baker scores as Margaret’s best friend. And kudos to Patrick Carroll, turning a small role into a winning effortless performance.
“Good People” is one of those plays you continue to think about long after you’ve seen it and the performances here aid and abet that. I hope it finds a large and appreciative audience and somehow extends into a longer run, and I think Miss McDormand is a front runner for a Best Actress Tony for her role. This is a play that should be seen by many, but especially by those elected officials past and present, whose policies help to create the very tensions and hostilities this play points up and magnifies. It may not try to be a political piece, but in 2011 America, it can’t help but not be that very thing.