The war between New York and Boston is ages old, but in this round, Boston is victorious. The town of South Boston, known to locals as “Southie,” has invaded Broadway forcefully and it won’t be leaving any time soon. David Lindsay Abaire’s new play, Good People, currently in performances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is a gripping, riveting portrayal of life a few states north of New York, and more than just the accent will linger in your mind long after the show is over.
Skillfully and subtely directed by Daniel Sullivan, Good People centers around Maggie (in a commanding performance by Frances McDormand), a single mother in her fifties who has just been fired from being a cashier at a dollar store. Facing eviction by her landlord Dottie (a scene-stealing Estelle Parsons), Maggie is advised by her friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) to pay a visit to her high school boyfriend Mike (an excellent Tate Donovan) and ask if he can help her find a job. Mike, they say, is good people. A successful fertility specialist, Mike escaped Southie by way of scholarships and, his accent noticeably softened, works in an expensive looking office. He is unable to help Maggie himself, but he reluctantly invites her to a party where she may be able to find a job with one of his friends.
This party sets the conflict of Act Two into play; Mike cancels the party due to his child’s illness but Maggie, suspecting him of lying, shows up at his house anyway. Wine is poured, cheese is sliced and harsh words are exchanged between the old friends. The conflict escalates as questions about Maggie’s past and her motivations are exposed while she probes what lies beneath Mike’s sleek, successful façade. When Mike’s wife, Kate, Renée Elise Goldsberry is introduced to Kate and some of the secrets of Mike’s past, the conflict escalates further. Goldsberry, who is excellent in her role, provides some much-needed moments of levity as her liberal guilt finds an outlet in the less fortunate Maggie, but she also brings a new depth to the scene when her anger and sadness with her husband are provoked.
Sadness is frequently inspired by this show, as are frustration and desperation. The problems that Maggie is facing are all too common to today’s audiences and the visuals of the show, with sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by David Zinn, establish her setting perfectly. Trapped in a low- income lifestyle, a single mom with a developmentally disabled daughter, Maggie is one of many people who was born in Southie and will probably die in Southie. She can’t even attend a weekly Bingo game unless her friend pays for her entry. Given her circumstances, one can sympathize with Maggie when she vents her anger and frustration.
Despite her circumstances. Maggie does seem like a nice person – perhaps even too nice, as Jean constantly tells her. Even though she was fired for excessive tardiness, she doesn’t blame her babysitter, who is frequently late. And even though she is a single mom with no income, she does not take her baby’s father to court for child support. It is due to the fine acting of McDormand that Maggie’s tougher side is exposed, even if it is quickly covered up by a chuckle, a pat on the back and a claim that she was just kidding. She is equally matched onstage by Donovan, who exposes Mike’s relief at making it out of Southie and into towny Chestnut Hill. When Maggie pushes him too far – as she does repeatedly – his anger is authentic. He seems to be a success, and everyone says he is, but he doesn’t seem to truly believe that himself, inviting the question of whether a person can truly escape his or her past.
Despite the fine acting of the ensemble, Good People falls short of true excellence. Some of the scenes drag on for far too long, resulting in situations feeling overwrought. And the lack of heroes and villains, as well as the lack of real action, establish the play as being realistic, but also anticlimactic. It ends on an ambiguous note, which is both hopeful and saddening. Maggie is an unfinished product and, played in such a remarkable performance by McDormand, she deserves more.