The middle-aged Margaret (Johanna Day) sits uncomfortably in the sleek, glass-walled doctor’s office of her high school classmate, Mike (Michael Laurence), surrounded by diplomas and silver-framed family photos. “We’re just comfortable,” Mike says to Margaret, who has just been fired from her job as a cashier at a dollar store. “I guess that makes me uncomfortable,” Margaret replies wryly. Despite the obvious contrast between the former friends, the Huntington Theatre’s production of “Good People,” directed by Kate Whoriskey and written by David Lindsay-Abaire, which runs from September 14 to October 14, finds its strength not in forthright social commentary but in bittersweet humor and unflinching sincerity about the role of luck in one’s future.
Margaret loses her cashier job after her landlady, Dottie (Nancy E. Carroll), is continually late to babysit Margaret’s severely disabled adult daughter. Dottie threatens to kick Margaret out by the end of the month if she fails to find work. Mike cannot offer Margaret employment, but she manages to get an invitation to a gathering he throws in order to ask his wealthy guests for help. After Margaret decides to go to the party anyway after having her invitation revoked, the situation between her and Mike turns from tense to tempestuous.
“Good People” is David Lindsay-Abaire’s first new play since his critically acclaimed “Rabbit Hole,” which won the Pulizer Prize for Drama in 2007 and was adapted into a film by the same name. “Good People” provides more than laughs; it marks a return to his signature style of screwball situations, frantically high stakes, and alternatingly heartfelt and gut-busting black comedy.
Day delivers Margaret’s gallows humor with a wry smile and enough disappointment in her voice to communicate Margaret’s pluck and desperation. Day’s persistence in her quest for employment is humorous, but she makes the cogs of Margaret’s mind visible when she delivers self-deprecating jokes and coyly needles Mike. Day’s Margaret is always aware of her objective and the absences in her life.
Despite the play’s exploration of the main characters’ dire circumstances, the cast’s comedic instincts and Whoriskey’s small directorial touches give the play a greatly rewarding sense of levity. For example, Jean (Karen MacDonald) tells Stevie (Nick Westrate) outright that everyone in Southie thinks he’s gay for playing bingo so often. Whoriskey’s production is seamless, each joke landing perfectly. When Mike’s wife, Kate (Rachael Holmes), asks Margaret how the wine is, Day’s Margaret responds without missing a beat, “How the fuck should I know?”
“Good People” shines most in its surprises. This is not to say that the characters are inconsistent but the question of who is actually a “good” person is answered obliquely. Questions surrounding the paternity of Margaret’s daughter and the true nature of Margaret’s relationship with Mike in high school are never fully answered. The lack of clarity allows the play to represent life’s lack of cut-and-dry solutions, which Maggie could desperately use.
Whoriskey’s nearly pitch-perfect production is attenuated by two potential surprises that are removed. Holmes is endearing as a privileged daughter of a doctor, but her character does not develop. She has the comedic instincts to effectively drop hints about the strained nature of her marriage while maintaining her perky and manicured persona. But if Day’s Maggie responds to obstacles like a clown target in a ball toss game—she bounces back, more battered each time—then Holmes’ Rachel is elastic, rebounding the emotional wreckage that piles up between Maggie and Mike by the end of the disastrous night that takes up most of the second act.
More crucially, Laurence’s Mike never really comes off as likable, undermining the outcome between the romantic leads. Laurence and Day have chemistry but it’s unfortunately of the caustic variety; their dissolution is far from unexpected. If Laurence showed the slightest warmth towards Day’s Maggie, who clearly admires him as much as she pushes his buttons, then his transformation from a Southie friend to a chestnut hill doctor ashamed of his past would be more tragic for Margaret.
The surprises in the play are more than sentimental; they represent hope against the socioeconomic determinism that crushes Maggie and terrifies Mike. The uplifting moments and twists in the narrative disrupt the status quo represented by the bingo games, in which the play’s Southies wait for a lucky number.
—Staff writer Hayley Cuccinello can be reached at email@example.com