Theater review: 'Good People' at Geffen Playhouse
How do you solve a problem like Margie, the tough South Boston single mother at the center of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People”?
The play, which was nominated for a Tony last season, is receiving its West Coast premiere in a sharp Geffen Playhouse production that gives Los Angeles audiences a crack at figuring out where exactly things went wrong for a woman who doesn't always make it easy for us to feel sorry for her. It's an intriguingly difficult case, one that bravely touches (with as much humor as seriousness) the one subject left in America that's still largely off-limits — social class.
This once-pretty, middle-aged train wreck, played with tender conviction by Jane Kaczmarek sporting a thick Red Sox fan accent, has just lost her job at the Dollar Store and is fretting about how she’s going to pay the rent for the apartment she shares with her developmentally disabled daughter. It doesn’t help her prospects that she peppers her conversation with the words “pardon my French” or that she seems perpetually spoiling for a fight, but not even her landlady (Marylouise Burke, one of Lindsay-Abaire’s acting muses) is prepared to give her a break, and they’re always hanging out together.
Lindsay-Abaire — operating in the naturalistic mode of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Rabbit Hole” rather than in the far-out farcical manner of his “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” — parcels out his drama in a series of scenes that can dillydally in local color but ultimately catch fire in confrontation. And given the pugnacious Southie spirit, it never takes long for an argumentative flicker to burst into combative flames.
The opening revolves around Margie getting canned by Stevie (a quietly strong Brad Fleischer), her Dollar Store boss, for being late once again. She explains that she had no one to watch her daughter, but he’s had enough of her excuses. It’s not that he’s coldhearted, but between her obvious manipulations, racist remarks and accusations of wage discrimination, it’s just easier to let her go.
Given the downward economy, jobs are scarce, especially for a high school dropout who hasn’t the stamina anymore for factory work. While commiserating with her landlady and smoke-ring-blowing friend Jean (Sara Botsford, laying it on amusingly thick), Margie gets the idea to hit up an old high school boyfriend who’s done well for himself for a job.
Mike (a captivatingly multihued Jon Tenney) is a Southie who escaped to the leafy affluence of Chestnut Hill via medical school. Handsome as ever, though with more reason to be cocky, he is somewhat taken aback by Margie’s visit to his office, but he doesn’t want to appear snobby.
Their by turns friendly and needling exchange, in which his Southie pride flares up after she calls him “lace curtain Irish,” is just a prelude to the big showdown at his home, where Margie appears unexpectedly and is graciously welcomed by Kate (an appealing Cherise Boothe), his African American wife, who wants to hear all about her husband’s mythological past in the urban jungle. And as eager to land a job as she is to reveal covered-up truths, Margie is more than happy to oblige.
Up until this point, the play is sharply observed but a bit plodding in its design and somewhat old-fashioned in its realistic sprawl. I found this to be the case with the acclaimed New York production as well, so it’s no complaint against Matt Shakman’s smart and steady direction. (It’s a pleasure, in fact, to see the Black Dahlia Theatre artistic director, who has a magic touch with ensemble casts, working at the Geffen.)
The dramatic tempo changes, however, as the clash of perspectives widens to include race and gender along with class. Lindsay-Abaire is conscious of the multidimensional reality of each character, the mix of advantage and disadvantage that marks every life story. And he allows the battle lines to shift in fascinating ways after Margie’s incursion into Mike’s fancy domestic sanctuary, where she finds an unexpected ally in Kate, whose empathy as a woman and person of color trump her elitism as a well-off professor of literature. Here, at last, the psychological fuses with the political into enthralling drama.
Kaczmarek approaches Margie in a softer way than did Frances McDormand, who won a Tony for her performance. Sadness and goodness keep peeking out of the character’s hardened shell. Some of Margie’s distinctive abrasiveness gets smoothed over, but Kaczmarek’s portrayal is as authentic as Tenney’s, and watching the two of them duke it out onstage is utterly gripping.
The stark contrast between the quality of Margie’s home life and that of Mike and Kate’s is scenically brought to life by set designer Craig Siebels, but the remarkable thing about “Good People” is its refusal to settle into schematic patterns. Money divides us, to be sure. But the worth of a person, as the play shrewdly bears out, is an infinitely more complicated calculation.
-- Charles McNulty
‘Good People,’ Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. $47 - $77. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Photos: Upper: Sara Botsford, Jane Kaczmarek, and Marylouise Burke. Lower: Jane Kaczmarek performs with Jon Tenney. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson/Los Angeles Times