‘Good People’ in a Bad Economy and a Lackluster Play
By: Isa Goldberg
In the Coen brothers’ movies, Frances McDormand often portrays characters who stupidly get into a lot of trouble. Her ability to screw things up makes for the absurd dark comedy, “Burn After Reading” in which McDormand, a gym employee, tries to raise money for her plastic surgery by blackmailing an ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich) and alternately peddling his memoirs to the Russian embassy. With plastic surgery and her new beau (George Clooney) on her mind, she barely seems to notice the disappearance of her best buddy (Brad Pitt).
More misfired and attempted murders result when McDormand as the wife of a Texas bar owner has an affair with a bartender in “Blood Simple”. Therein lies a horror story dripping with gore, bathing in greed and jealousy, and fueled by bizarre acts of revenge. Then of course, there is “Fargo”. What pregnant woman can’t avoid tripping onto a murder scene that involves grinding up bodies in a wood chipper? In her Academy Award-winning role, McDormand embodies the insanity of that frozen land.
In “Good People”, McDormand continues on a trouble-making journey, starring in David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play about a single mother who looses one job after the next. As in some of her well-known movie roles, McDormand’s Margie is an ordinary, Middle American person whose situation has spiraled out of control. Struggling to regain her footing, Margie reaches out to a high school boyfriend, now an accomplished fertility doctor (Tate Donovan) whom she approaches in search of a job. When he refuses, however genteelly to introduce her to his colleagues for that purpose, Margie relents sweetly, commenting that she knows he is really “good people”.
McDormand’s performance raises the stakes on Abaire’s drama, sparking moments of suspense amidst basically banal material. In fact, the plot comes across as little more than a mockumentary about unemployment among America’s working class. The dialogue, with only tinges of irony, focuses on work, the lack thereof, and the human dilemma it creates for its victims. Similarly, the relationships serve the issue. In fact, the play appears nearly absent of three-dimensional characters, at least until McDormand takes on her old beau. And then sparks fly, at times causing the audience to wonder if her pursuit of Mike reveals an underlying pathology. Certainly the doctor and his open-minded, forgiving wife would like to convince us that that is the case.
Clearly, McDormand’s ability to tip the psychological scales while creating a character who is righteously motivated is what holds the piece together. Mastering a brusque south Boston accent, the actress flirts with danger in a most convincing way. When she picks up the hefty Lalique vase, a “push present” from the doctor to his wife, threatening to shatter it, it’s as powerful as if she were taking the gun from the mantel.
Fortunately, the performances are all around engaging. Tate Donovan’s doctor is credible “like someone on a TV show…a professional” as Margie puts it. Renee Elise Goldsberry as his wife is a charming, thin-skinned member of the intellectual elite. And as Margie’s ballsy best friend, Becky Ann Baker brings a humorous contrast to the general state of malaise.
Finally, Estelle Parsons as Dottie, the upstairs neighbor who baby-sits for Margie’s severely retarded child, knows how to gasp and gawk at Margie’s predicament as though she were observing Bonnie and Clyde at the end of their crime spree. In the end, Parson uses that memorable moment of open-mouthed shock and awe to fine comic effect.
In fact, what registers as strong character here, seems to be drawn from situations that lie outside the drama, in the movie roles that made these actors memorable. Perhaps, in the world of “Good People” no one really builds a character, and therein lies a problem bigger than unemployment.
“Good People” is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, through Sunday, May 8th. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, visit www.Telecharge.com, or go to the box office.
Photos: Joan Marcus