All words: Courtney Pitman
Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I loved “Good People.” Loved it. I won’t be a tease here and make you trudge through paragraphs of my pretentious analyses to get to the nut… Arena Stage’s “Good People” is outstanding and if you don’t go see it immediately your life will be reduced to a series of Kristin Chenoweth interview montages where the interviewee is always Kristen Stewart and Lena Dunham skips by you unnoticed because she’s, like, gross looking. And then afterwards the three of you chew on ice chips and enjoy this (terrifyingly highly-rated) Lifetime movie.
I couldn’t even make it through one paragraph before yielding to wildly hyperbolic statements. Oh well. If you’d care to endure, let me qualify my thesis in a section titled, “Why ‘Good People’ is So Brilliant That I Made the Ridiculous Threat Above.”
Superb story. With tight, subtle poignancy (amid constant cursing and racial slurs, no less) “Good People” maintains the nuances typically reserved for literature. Simply put, “Good People” follows Margie (pronounced with a hard G) through a couple days in the not-so-easy life of her and her Southie Boston cohorts, centering on her reconnection with Mikey, an old high school friend/boyfriend who left Southie behind him and became a doctor. The story is indeed simple enough, but “Good People” achieves its true heights through intricately-layered interactions between the play’s six characters, leaving just enough to implication and assumption.
The Southie folks are a tough lot and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, himself a Southie native, doesn’t shy away from portraying the bad or the ugly. Fittingly, the show launches in an alley next to a dollar store as Margie is being fired for chronically coming to work late when she doesn’t have someone to watch her daughter. Like its Showtime contemporary Shameless, it morphs horribly dire circumstances into unabashedly humorous situations. This is best exemplified by an excruciatingly awkward scene in Mike’s doctor’s office, where Margie has traveled out of desperation to more or less beg for a job Mike isn’t going to give her. She preserves no pride in her request, yet still uses the opportunity to passive aggressively comment on Mike’s successful life, nice things, and calls him “Lace Curtain Irish” for leaving Southie behind.
“Good People” hints at social commentary rather than lecturing its audience, and as a result, the take-home sits in your stomach like a Chipotle burrito. Just when you think you’ve finally digested that last bit of cilantro rice, you burp up some fajita filling. Now you’re stuck pondering a whole new mezcla of grilled onions and peppers you hadn’t even really realized you’d eaten. Although Margie and Mike dominate the plot, each of the six characters is offered enough back story for the audience to grapple with their identities. How much of our success is luck of circumstance versus choice and hard work? What is the definition of a good person? How would I handle each of these situations?
This ish is funnnnaayyyy. “Good People” tempers its deeper subject matter with fantastically dark comedy, the one-two punch that keeps it airy and thriving. While the play is absolutely poking fun at Southies, it doesn’t go so far as to give them a wedgie, nor does it ever become so heavy that it’s not fun. Also, for good measure, shots are taken at the bourgeois crowd with their excess of different types of cheeses and wines. This biting humor is accomplished through one-liners galore and the fantastic actors who deliver them.
•“This is a Dollar Store. Who do they think is gonna work here?”
•“___ is a doctor.” “No she’s not, she’s a vet’s assistant. She holds the dogs down when they’re put to sleep.”
•“How’s the wine?” “How the fuck should I know?”
The details. The set design at Arena Stage’s Kreeger stage is great, transforming smoothly from an alley, to a bingo hall, to the living room of a wealthy family. Even better, there were killer rocking Boston/Irish interludes on set changes which evoked this imagery in my mind. Further, the acting was fantastic all around, the accents were mostly not distracting from the plotline, and the costumes were subtly perfect.
Margie. Margaret Walsh the character is absolutely phenomenal. Johanna Day, the actress that portrays her, is absolutely phenomenal. As our flawed heroine we pull for throughout, even when her smartass mouth makes us cringe, Margie feels like a real person throughout, which is a huge credit to the actor. Half an hour ago I burped pico de gallo tinged with guilt: our audience didn’t stand up during applause and for the first time in pretty much forever, I had actually thought it was sincerely deserved. Please accept my most heartfelt apologies, Ms. Day, for yielding to peer pressure. As an aside, in five years Chelsea Handler is probably going to look like Johanna as Margie Walsh.
Oh, what’s that? You’re still not convinced? Well, Frances McBallerDormand won a Tony for best leading actress in a play as part of the original production. So. Yeah.