Review: Good People

I have to hand it to Manhattan Theatre Club; they have been batting a thousand in their Broadway space, which they recently renamed as the Friedman Theatre. Their 2009-2010 season was rock solid, not a weak play in the bunch, with a standout in Time Stands Still. Midway through the Friedman’s 2010-2011 season, it’s looking stronger still.

In some ways, Good People follows Time Stand Still’s formula for success: An American playwright delivers his best work to date, with a knockout female lead role performed by one of the finest American actress of our time. In the case of Good People, that playwright is David Lindsay-Abaire, and that actress is Frances McDormand.

In Good People, Lindsay-Abaire takes us to Southie, the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood where he grew up. He is very much writing what he knows, more directly than he ever has before, with powerful results. People in Southie work very hard for very little, especially our heroine Margie Walsh (McDormand) who has just been let go from yet another dead-end job.

Brainstorming where she can turn to find work in this crappy economy, Margie and her friends think of Mike (Tate Donovan) a guy Margie dated in high school, who got out of Southie and is now a successful doctor. Margie visits Mike, but nothing quite goes as planned.

In spite of its serious subject matter, Good People is essentially a comedy. The women of Southie, in spite of everything, are nothing if not spirited. That “Southie spirit” is the heart and soul of the play, and its most engaging quality. McDormand takes that energy the farthest – you can see that Margie is battling depression, emotional and economic, with everything she’s got, and that’s a lot. She never gives in.

But Good People doesn’t flinch from difficult truths, either. It has many hard things to say about how American society abuses its working class, and it says it baldly. It’s not a perfect play: in her desperation to find work, Margie does things that are inconsistent with the person Lindsay-Abaire established earlier in the play. Maybe that’s part of the point: an abusive economy will make “good people” do bad things. If so, however, that’s not sufficiently spelled out in a play that, rightfully, spells plenty of things out.

McDormand is every bit as incandescent as Laura Linney was in Time Stands Still, with exciting rock ’n’ roll energy to boot. Estelle Parsons is a hoot and a half as Margie’s friendly but abrasive landlady Dottie, and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Easily the best new American play on Broadway so far this season.

For tickets, click here.