“Good People” is good stuff, a keenly observed rumination on how far decency can get you and how much depends on sheer luck as you try to grab a piece of the American Dream. The play’s seams are showing at the Geffen Playhouse, partly because helmer Matt Shakman has softened some of the rougher edges. Yet it’s a thoroughly absorbing contributor to our ongoing national discussion of class, wealth and destiny.
Middle-aged Margaret Walsh (Jane Kaczmarek), like playwright David Lindsay-Abaire himself, is a product of “Southie,” the working-class Boston neighborhood dramatized in “The Departed” and “The Town.” She stayed in town while high school beau Mike Dillon (Jon Tenney) departed, nabbing an Ivy League education while refusing to look back.
Today Mike enjoys a prestigious medical practice in tony suburb Chestnut Hill, while Margie (hard g, please) is jobless, broke, unskilled, unmarried and the sole caregiver of a grown retarded daughter — or as the cynical “All About Eve” maid put it, “everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” This notable example of playwright deck-stacking animates the eventual reckoning between old pals who have become total strangers, forced to sort out how two paths can so manifestly and cruelly diverge.
Shakman has pulled Kaczmarek away from the white heat and bull-in-china-shop candor of Frances McDormand’s Tony-winning turn last year. This Margie is sweet, more of an ingenuous and unconscious mischief maker. She’s pretty (how does she afford that expensive-looking shag haircut, one wonders) and eager to be liked; while she says she’s desperate, face and manner don’t always reflect it.
A guileless take is winning, all right. But when this self-styled good person starts doing and saying things which are quite bad indeed, credibility is strained as the character’s aspects fail to add up. Margie’s inconsistencies start to seem the product of competing acting choices rather than facets built into the part, in a noble but not always persuasive attempt to take an iconic portrayal in a different direction.
Among the otherwise exemplary cast, Tenney is simply stunning as the Black Irish thug turned aristocrat whose dark roots slowly start to emerge in the course of a long, boozy night. As his outsider wife, the splendid Cherise Boothe offers widening eyes through which we can assess the truthfulness of Margie and Mike’s competing reminiscences.
On the other side of the tracks, garrulous landlady Marylouise Burke and wisecracking neighbor Sara Botsford provide hilarity and texture, while Brad Fleischer is terrific in the small but pivotal role of the local kid turned store manager who fired Margie, himself a reluctant cog in a bigger machine.
People talk idly about designs serving a play, but the sculpted environment is genuinely a central participant here. Craig Siebels’ narrow little boxes for act one’s Southie locations are brightly lit by Elizabeth Harper to reveal the pulse of life within, whereas act two presents a wide expanse of glittering manse in which shadows hint at ugly secrets. Throughout, E.B. Brooks’ costumes precisely and thoughtfully pinpoint character and status.