It is doubtful that George Street Theater audiences will see a finer contemporary play or experience a more splendid production this season than David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.” This play confirmed that this Pulitzer Prize-winning (“Rabbit Hole”) playwright was at the top of the list of superior American writers of dramatic literature. I am ready to say that Lindsay-Abaire topped himself with “Good People,” reaffirming his affinity for subjects that are both ultra real and profoundly touching. They are both plays that were a decided leap from the darkly comical, skewed reality that marked his previous plays “Fuddy Meers,” “Kimberly Akimbo,” and “Wonder of the World.”
David Saint has masterfully directed this co-production with the Seattle Repertory Company (where it goes next), a high point in his career at George Street’s artistic director, as well as a peak for the George Street Playhouse.
With “Good People,” Lindsay-Abaire focuses on a very timely and topical issue: the gap between the rich and the poor, the successful and those without prospects. While you may think you know to whom the play’s title refers, the concept of what is good and what is right eventually becomes the point in this multilayered comedy-drama. From my perspective, this production succeeds as well, if not more so, than its world premiere on Broadway. Or maybe I just realize how exceptional the play really is.
It doesn’t seem that life can get much worse for Margaret (Ellen McLaughlin), a 50-year-old single mom trying to care for her mentally challenged adult daughter (unseen). Because she has had to rely on her unreliable landlady, Dottie (Cynthia Lauren Tewes), to stay with her daughter while she goes to work, Margaret is fired from her job as a cashier at the local Dollar Store for being consistently late.
Unfortunately, her excuses don’t work for the otherwise compassionate store manager, Stevie (Eric Riedmann), whose own job, as he explains it, is on the line. Set behind the Dollar Store, this opening scene between two adults who have known each other since childhood also opens our hearts to the situation confronting Margaret.
Margaret’s prospects for finding another job are not great, even though she is willing to walk up and down Main Street filling out applications. While Dottie professes to be Margaret’s friend and enjoys sitting in her kitchen and gabbing with her and another neighborhood friend, Jean (Marianne Owen), the landlady considers giving the apartment to her unemployed son and evicting Margaret if she cannot come up with the rent.
A high school dropout, Margaret is basically without skills. However, a bright prospect suddenly appears in her no-exit life in South Boston’s Lower End where the residents are known as “Southies.” Margaret learns that Mike (John Bolger), a bright young man with whom she went to school and had a short fling before he went to college, is now a doctor with a practice in Boston, and she grasps at this opportunity to reach out to him. Would he be able to either employ her or at least help her get a job? With its skillfully written, sharp-as-a-tack dialogue, the play begins to vibrate with a palpable tension when Margaret visits Mike’s office.
Through the desperate, unsettling manner in which the insecure but determined Margaret tries to persuade Mike to help her, we can see how Lindsay-Abaire is using this as a means to reveal not only the guarded admiration for those who rise above their environment, but also to expose the resentment, jealousy, and sense of betrayal felt by those who have not had the good fortune to escape. Margaret’s willingness to go the distance, no matter how assertive or even scarily aggressive, is buoyed by her instinctively funny, feisty personality — one that allows her to follow a rather risky path to achieve her end.
To see the many facets of this character in action is a credit to McLaughlin’s on-the-mark performance (Frances McDormand won the Tony for Best Actress in this role), one that not only stands on its own with the unique flavor of someone raised in South Boston, but also for making us deeply feel Margaret’s impassioned displays of tenacity. McLaughlin, who is famed for making a memorable landing on Broadway as the Angel in “Angels in America,” and has continued her impressive career as an actor and as a playwright, is quite simply superb as the play’s ever-struggling centerpiece.
With this production’s tie to the Seattle Rep, it is easy to understand the casting of three actors who have strong Seattle credits. More importantly, it gives George Street audiences a chance to see a trio of actors who have made their mark in the northwest and can now wow us.
Tewes is a hoot — a cross between Patsy Kelly and Tugboat Annie — as the affably mercenary landlady, who, as a side business, crafts bunnies with googly eyes to sell at local street markets. Owen shines as the best friend who urges Margaret to reconnect with Mike.
Bolger, who was impressive as an easily swayed juror in “12 Angry Men” last season at George Street, has once again gotten to the gritty core of a character as the increasingly agitated Mike, who soon realizes that he may have opened himself up to an uncomfortable situation by inviting Margaret to his home. Their past and his, specifically in regard to an incident when he was a tough street kid, surfaces with unexpected results in front of his beautiful African-American wife, Kate, as played with upper-crust geniality by Zakiya Young. The resolve is, at the very least, conspired to make us rethink the way our moral directions and ethical decisions determine who the good people among us really are.
Not the least of this production’s many attributes is the stunning physical frame provided by designer James Youmans: a black and white virtual tour of the play’s Boston environs and a visual intro for the smartly evocative sets.
Good People, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through February 24. $28-$67. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.