David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (Friedman Theatre) is a goodish play about people who maybe aren’t so great. It spends a fair amount of its second act discussing whether its heroine, Margaret (Frances McDormand), is or isn’t “nice.” Margaret has substantial justification, the play reveals, for being neither particularly good nor especially nice. The trick that Lindsay-Abaire pulls off, neatly, is to display every bad or not-nice thing she does while still making us feel that she’s “good people” in the colloquial sense. We know where she came from and what she’s up against; we see how her hopes and daydreams have collided with reality to produce the worsening mess she gets herself into.
The play’s goodishness comes from its firm anchoring in that reality. Lindsay-Abaire knows the area Margaret comes from, South Boston. He knows not only how its people talk, but how their talk reveals the cultural patterns that generations of conditioning have imprinted on their thought process. A great deal of the play’s pleasure comes from his hitting the right note, precisely, time and again; he rarely—in fact, almost never—strikes a false one.
And yet something’s not quite right. Like his heroine, Lindsay-Abaire wants to go further, to escape the oppressively harsh facts of life in “Southie.” Margaret wants a beautiful life in a big, luxurious suburban home, of the sort she might have had if she’d held onto her boyfriend of one teenage summer, Mike (Tate Donovan), a bright kid from a more stable Southie family, who succeeded in escaping and now prospers as a consulting physician in a fancy clinic. Lindsay-Abaire, too, is a successful escapee, whose early bright-boy plays, like Fuddy Meers, were full of surrealist grotesquery and loony linguistic shenanigans, while his Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole was set wholly in a comfortable upper-middle suburbia.
In Good People, Lindsay-Abaire tries simultaneously to go back to his roots and to extend his reach. His clear aim is to say something larger, to put downtrodden Margaret and successful Mike in the wider context of America’s worsening perplexity over class, money, and race. Margaret, struggling to support herself and her mentally retarded daughter (by the no-good for whom she dumped Mike), has just been laid off from her cashier job, because her child-care problems make her chronically late to work. Learning that Mike is back in town, from a gossipy waitress friend (Becky Ann Baker) who has found herself serving him at a posh fundraiser, Margaret swallows her pride and goes to plead with him for employment. Mike, it turns out, hasn’t totally repressed his proletarian past; instead of marrying above his class, he has married across color lines, to Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), the African-American daughter of another self-upgrader escaped from a poverty background. Lindsay-Abaire displays particular skill at making these same-only-different characters jangle their crossed wires while recognizing the common ground they share. His drama’s distresses occur because bad things happen within these good people.
But the play never moves beyond that statement. The lift-off that would make Margaret’s woes and the discomfiture of Mike’s marriage the quintessence of a larger social picture doesn’t occur. In part, the lack exists because Lindsay-Abaire has been true to his characters and their world: They aren’t articulate types who can crystallize in words precisely what’s happening to them, nor do they move among the wealthy and powerful who make the big choices that constrain our little lives. Lindsay-Abaire’s folk, even those freed of lower-class economic constraints, are work-ethic, family-centered people, glimpsing the limits placed on their options only from underneath. Their awareness of the forces that shape those limits is erratic at best.
Still, Good People brings its characters’ dilemmas alive, its effectiveness strongly abetted by the top-quality acting in Daniel Sullivan’s production, and particularly enhanced by David Zinn’s compassionately astute costume choices. McDormand, working at top form, makes Margaret a fascinating, fiery bundle of mismatched impulses; Goldsberry and Donovan partner her subtly in the long climactic scene. Baker’s unhelpfully helpful friend and Estelle Parsons’s obstructively neighborly landlady are gems of tragicomic characterization. While we wait for theatrical greatness, the multiple goodnesses supplied here do a lot to keep us hopeful.