David Lindsay-Abaire knows how to write a play. Good People, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood California, is one of them. Last season on Broadway, Good People won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. If you know Rabbit Hole, Linsday-Abaire won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as five Tony Awards for that gem. Like I said, the guy knows how to write a play.
We start out in an alley behind a dollar store where Margie (Jane Kaczmarek) is pleading her case as why she should not be fired. This is obviously not the first time Stevie (Brad Fleischer) has had to have this conversation with Margie. She’s late all the time and it reflects badly on him. She does get fired, but not until after attempting motherly guilt, pointing out that another cashier thinks he’s gay, power plays with a touch of racism…but to no avail. The problems with the scene starts immediately as Kaczmarek struggles with the Boston accent. She seems more uncomfortable with the accent than with getting fired. As she attempts to win him over by endearing herself to him in a myriad of ways, she is unfortunately anticipating the end of the scene…that she will get fired…and she does. This does not give the audience much reason to care. We should feel sorry for her that she gets fired, especially with her situation at home. You see, Margie has a disabled child and is a single mother. And yet, he fires her anyway. But we just do not care. And we should. But keep reading.
After a seamless and quiet scene change (not an easy task with the size of the set and the theatre),we move on to Margie’s kitchen with her landlord and friend Dottie (MaryLouise Burke) and long-term friend Jean (Sara Botsford). The interplay between the three women is written brilliantly but unfortunately, the scene drags. This scene is about all three of them proving their importance to each other, themselves, and defending their respective family members…but due to the lack of fire, and the fact that they are sitting too long, important beats are missed. For example, Margie leaves the kitchen to take care of Joycie (her daughter) whom we only hear watching TV in the other room. Dottie voices her concern to Jean about Margie finding another job because if she doesn’t, Dottie will have to evict her. Dottie does not take a beat (or moment) after Margie leaves the room to build the intensity. When Dottie tells Margie when she returns that she will have to evict her, there is no fire under Margie’s predicament. Again, the audience should care. We don’t. But keep reading.
We are now taken to Mike’s (Jon Tenney) office. He is a doctor and an old childhood friend of Margie. She has decided to ask him if he may have a job for her since in the kitchen scene, Jean tells her of running into him, and that he’s a doctor now and what’s the worse that can happen, right? Again, the scene change is impeccable and the office is a masterpiece set. It turns out that Margie and Mike dated for a few months one summer way back. She tries everything she can to get his help but he really does not have anything for her. Lindsay-Abaire writes a brilliant scene about young versus old, manipulative flattery, name calling, insults, the back and forth of two people who knew each other in another life…and are meeting again under very uncomfortable circumstances. She does not give up easily, a proud character trait of those who call themselves Southie’s: those from the lower end of south Boston from which Lindsay-Abdaire hails. The scene goes from cordial and flattery to anger and jealousy, back and forth and up and down. She even refers to him as a “lace curtain Irish” which in the world of the Southie, are poor immigrants who have designs on becoming more upwardly mobile. In other words, they are considered social climbers by the other Irish immigrants, of which the Southie is proud to be. In the end, Margie manages to get herself invited to Mike’s birthday party in Chestnut Hill…a very different place from the south side, perhaps to get a job from one of his wealthy friends. The scene could have been danced with more of a steamy salsa using the entirety of the wonderful set by Craig Seibels…they should have started out close, gotten closer, gotten in each other’s faces, he retreating behind the desk to protect himself, she as far away as the door as if she might be leaving and then coming back in…but it is more of a slow waltz than the hot socioeconomic salsa it should have been. Nevertheless, the scene works because of Jon Tenney. He pulls Kaczmarek up to the theatrical level of the circumstances and that Julliard training he has in his heart, soul and bones. And they are beautiful bones. The audience shows its appreciation for the show finally going somewhere, with applause as this scene ends.
After another flawless scene change, we are transported to a church for Bingo night. We learn of an old friend of Margie, Jean, and Dottie’s who has died where she lived…on the street. Dottie provides us with some much needed comic relief with her homemade $5 styrofoam bunnies with the “googely eyes” for sale on her bingo table. Burke has the best comedy lines in the show and delivers them perfectly. She steals the scene until Margie receives a call from Mike telling of his daughter being sick and therefore they need to cancel his birthday party. No one believes this story, including the audience, and she decides to show up anyway, since he is obviously lying to keep her out of his life. Now the play starts to really take off. The intermission lights bump so fast to black that there is no applause because the audience is expecting another scene. It needs a bit of a fade. But when the house lights come up there is an unsure, but appreciative, applause.
Act 2 starts in Mike’s very nice but not overly nice home, with his wife Kate (Cherise Boothe). It is immediately apparently that there actually is no party as Kate thinks she is opening the door to the caterers arriving to pick up supplies they had delivered. Kate is embarrassed when she finds out Margie is Mike’s childhood friend and invites her to stay for cheese and wine. Mike is amused at Margie’s attempt to lie, that she misunderstood his phone call of the cancellation. The lies and deceit that mirror and reflect the stress of their opposite socioeconomic lives, their vastly different levels of education, Mike’s beautiful, endearing and highly educated young black wife…compared to Margie’s state of unemployment, being a single mother with a disabled child…lead to conflict upon conflict that are written so well and acted so brilliantly, they overcome the lack of powerful, purposeful direction.
This play is about choices. Do we all even have choices? Do some of us get lucky to get out of bad circumstances we were born into, or does it take hard work to get out? Or is it both luck and hard work? What do we do when we find ourselves in middle age and we are still struggling when an old friend is so much better off than us? Are they really better off or is this merely a perception when the truth is revealed? Does desperation excuse breaking up a marriage? Does lying to get ahead catch up with you? When is lying excusable and when is it not? Are we rewarded for anonymously making someone’s life better? What makes one person “good people” and another person, well, not? The play is brilliant, the cheese and wine is used to symbolize right and wrong and black and white and all the colors of life in between.
Boothe delivers a performance well worth every bead of sweat she dropped at the NYU Graduate Acting Program. She is alluring, smart, sexy and perfectly cast. Fleischer is rightly understated and carries Stevie’s dilemmas on his adorable sleeve. Fleischer has a range that this small role does not showcase, and I look forward to much, much more from him. Jon Tenney is the true lead in this show and deserves to be on stage and camera much more. Please?! Kaczmarek proves herself to be wonderful as Margie, although I wish Shakman had reminded her that you can and should and must use your entire body and being when on stage, as opposed to on camera where you must be more still focused depending on the shot type. Jane, you have to make the stage manager, and the husbands who have been dragged to a play to feel your pain, your joy, your relief, jealousy, rage, humiliation and surprise every single time you perform the show. The entire cast is well chosen by Schuringa as she is a master at putting compatible energies together. Jill Gold and Kyra Hansen are without a doubt good people, as are all the unsung heros known as stage managers.
See the show. 4 stars out of 5. Support theatre in LA and you will be rewarded with more of the same support to learn and grow and have a great night out.