By Manning Harris
David Lindsay-Abaire, author of Alliance Theatre’s new production of “Good People,” running through February 10, reports in “Playbill” that he’s heard many conversations about American playwrights and the subject of class differences: “Oh, the Brits always write about class! Where are the American plays about class? Why don’t American playwrights write about class?”
In “Good People,” set in working-class South Boston (“Southie”), the Pulitzer Prize-winning (“Rabbit Hole”) playwright has answered those questions with his own play. It seems that South Boston has been the setting of a number of films in recent years such as “Mystic River” and “The Departed.” “Good People” certainly doesn’t have the dynamism and violence of those works; instead, it deals with the complexities and ambiguities of human beings.
The central character is Margaret—Margie to her friends (with a hard “g”), played by Kate Buddeke; she has just lost her job because of excessive tardiness. She is fired by Stevie (Andrew Benator), who really has no choice; but Margie and Stevie were childhood friends, and here we begin to see the maddening, annoying, passive-aggressive aspects of her character. She excuses her tardiness, using her grown, special-needs daughter as the reason. Her neighbor is perpetually late in arriving to babysit her daughter, so of course that’s not Margie’s fault. She almost wallows in her victimhood, and she proceeds to badger Stevie and taunt him with petty neighborhood gossip; it never occurs to her that Stevie is far more of a friend than “the enemy.”
So Margie retreats to lick her wounds and play bingo with her neighborhood pals, Dottie and Jean (Brenda Bynum and Lala Cochran). Jean tries to offer some positive advice, while Dottie specializes in finding the negative in absolutely everything. However, they bring up the subject of Mike, a high school classmate who dated Margie briefly many years ago, when they were about 17 years old.
Mike (Thomas Vincent Kelly) has made it out of Southie—big time. He is a successful reproductive endocrinologist, or fertility doctor, if you prefer. Margie schleps up to his office, hoping against hope that he can somehow get her employment. Here is where the class difference dynamic really shows up. Margie is clearly her own worst enemy. She’s an expert at self-sabotage—envious, resentful, doubtful, rude, sly; but at the same time self-deprecatingly polite and toadying. She also plays the “lace curtain” Southie card, implying Mike has forgotten his roots and is putting on airs. Mike has no job to offer but invites her to his home for a little party.
In Act II the drama and conflict of the piece is really heightened. I can’t tell you any more at this point except to mention that Mike’s Chestnut Hills home is huge and gorgeous (kudos to set designer Collette Pollard), and he has a beautiful African-American wife (Kristen Ariza).
Kate Buddeke’s Margie (a role for which Frances McDormand won a Tony Award in 2011) is provocative, maddening and heartbreaking. Her Margie, like many of her neighbors, has a fierce loyalty to South Boston (though she’d never admit it); consequently, she is afflicted by a kind of self-defeating homeostasis. And even though she makes you squirm uncomfortably, you begin to realize—if you’re honest—that we all have elements of Margie in us at times. We can thank the playwright for this happy revelation.
Lala Cochran makes her Alliance debut here, and she is particularly fine. Mr. Benator and Mr. Kelly acquit themselves admirably. The play is directed by Susan V. Booth, who continues to challenge Atlanta audiences to think for themselves. “Good People” is a compelling evening.
For more information, visit alliancetheatre.com.