Scrambled Egos

But unlike Smith's Sunny, who always bounces back for another try, Goldberg's Liz is a flailing, romantic defeatist—back in a clerking job at a mall store, still pining for her high school boyfriend (another troubled, angry bright kid from a broken home), and still turning to her high school guidance counselor for help. I've fallen into all these details in summarizing Good Thing's setup because Goldberg, though not God, is in the details; unlike Smith, she never withholds any information. The paradoxical result is that we start disbelieving what we hear, and sometimes even what we see. Can Liz's guidance counselor and his wife, over 20 years married with no kids, really never have gone on a vacation before? Can the teenage crackhead her ex married on the rebound, now seven months pregnant, really start twitching at the sight of the drug when she's on the verge of giving birth? Maybe so, but the details Goldberg has chosen don't convince us; instead they're punched at us repeatedly, with a kind of obstinate overemphasis, seconded by Jo Bonney's equally overemphatic production, till they ring increasingly hollow.

And—worse luck—there's no news in the details. When they stop being familiar, they merely become improbable. Say you have a newborn baby; an intruder convinces you you're incapable of caring for it. So you just drive over to the house of the people she suggests and offer it to them. No doubt it could happen in real life; but if the writer hasn't created a life that's convincingly real enough, what it looks like instead is sitcom: Six Jerks and a Baby. For all Goldberg's honorable struggle to realize her characters, they and their barren lives have an ineffably secondhand air: The older couple, forever recriminating about his long-ago adultery with a student, comes from Pinter; the younger quartet, with their drug-induced angst and abrupt rages, are straight out of Shepard. The few verbal bright spots come heavily marked by the playwright's self-consciousness.

Goldenhersh, Graham, and Burstein in Psych: who’s really in charge here?
photo: Joan Marcus
Goldenhersh, Graham, and Burstein in Psych: who’s really in charge here?

Details

Psych
By Evan Smith
Playwrights Horizons/Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street 212-279-4200

Good Thing
By Jessica Goldberg
The New Group/St. Clement's
423 West 46th Street 212-279-4200

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Goldberg's finger-pointing combines with Bonney's pressure to put the actors in a tough situation. To underplay and build simply from within would result in work that looked pallid in context; to yield to the pressure virtually means to overstate. Each of the six good actors slips into the latter condition from time to time; to their credit, most of them look damned unhappy about it. The gifted Chris Messina is the worst backslider, attempting to convey drugged adolescence by running around and yelling a lot. Alicia Goranson holds her own, painstakingly, as Liz, and Hamish Linklater, as her ex, is nearly as good. Cara Buono marches through the unconvincing role of the crackhead mom with taut determination, like the White Queen believing six impossible things before breakfast. John Rothman, as the peccant guidance counselor, tiptoes up to his rages as if wishing they would disappear, which is endearing, while Betsy Aidem, as his embittered wife, surrounds her tantrums with a nimbus of I-shouldn't-be-indicating-like-this guilt that's even more so. I started this review by saying that Goldberg's people were more interesting than what they said and did, but here again I have to rethink: Far from seeing the characters in a different situation, I'd simply like to see all the actors in a play by somebody else.

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