Like the characters it depicts, the play “Good Thing” struggles to figure out where it’s going, although once it does it delivers some wrenching drama.
Up-and-coming playwright Jessica Goldberg (“Refuge,” “The Hologram Theory”) puts forth an ambitiously eclectic aesthetic, a blend of gritty social drama, poetic humor and unsubtle existential contemplation. These elements never quite meld into a great thing, but “Good Thing” demonstrates her worthwhile voice in examining lost, angst-ridden or drug-addled people who genuinely wish to improve their lives but don’t know how.
The first act is pretty much all setup for the second, introducing the characters who will collide far more intriguingly later on. Courtesy of Jason Adams’ set, the distinction between the two generational groups onstage couldn’t be clearer. Once their covers are removed, we see two kitchens, each bordered with bars the way a four-poster bed might be. The kitchen stage right — clean and white to the point of being antiseptic — belongs to middle-age couple John and Nancy Roy (Francis Guinan and Shannon Holt), both high school guidance counselors. We first meet them in a sneaker store as they prepare for a summertime vacation they hope will heal a strained marriage.
Stage left is another kitchen, this one a mess of overflowing dishes and brown, decaying appliances. And in contrast to the slow, cautious interaction between the Roys, issues are spit out in methamphetamine-driven diatribes. The house belongs to Dean (Hamish Linklater), whose brother Bobby (John Cabrera) and wife Mary (Karina Logue) are addicted to crystal meth. Mary is nine months pregnant, and mostly with her own consent she’s locked up in her room all day so as not to be tempted by the drugs Bobby consumes nonstop in the kitchen. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant, disturbing picture, made worse by Dean’s inability to cope with the situation.
In the middle of the stage is a raised bedroom that belongs to Liz (Megan Austin Oberle), a young woman (the young characters are all around 20 or so) who becomes the catalyst for the play’s slow-developing narrative. Liz had been in love with Dean in high school, drawn to his philosophical brooding and hidden intelligence. She went off to Ithaca College but has returned without a degree, and wants to reignite the happiness she felt with him. She soon discovers his world of premature adulthood, taking care of a drug-addicted brother and wife and about to have a kid. With the best of intentions, Liz develops a plan to do a “good thing” that she imagines will fix much of what’s wrong.
The performances here, under Neel Keller’s direction, are very strong. The showiest is Cabrera, who gets to stomp around the stage in narcotics-inspired fits and starts, while Linklater finds the right measure of explosive frustration for a scene just before intermission when he lashes out. Oberle is appropriately soulful as do-gooder Liz, a character who confides to Mr. Roy that she’s easily taken advantage of, a quality that doesn’t play out as it seems it should. Guinan and Holt are appropriately depressive and bland, and there’s certainly something amusing in the very concept of a high school guidance counselor needing to offer a kind of guidance that he’s certainly not prepared for.
While the play mines a sense of spiritual emptiness and painful regret, it manages not to get too mired in the purely pitiable by having these lost, screwy, even unlikable characters try to do the right thing. So much drama these days — especially plays about drugs or other social ills — follows the seduction of good people into bad lives that there’s something refreshing about a writer taking on the more elusive but meaningful challenge of questioning what’s really good.
The plot is never fully convincing in “Good Thing,” the poetic elements never quite become completely integrated into the playing and there’s a bit of preciousness to some of Keller’s staging. But there’s also some dramatic eloquence on display.