The playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose comedy Good People now arrives on Broadway, presents an interesting phenomnon. There are, be it stated, two kinds of drama. There is what is usually known as boulevard theater, or the well-made play, aimed principally but not exclusively at the tired businessman, the blue-haired old lady and their likes, which in New York means essentially Broadway, and caters to mature, middle-class, frequent theatergoers; tourists craving the Broadway experience; and, of course, busloads from New Jersey.
Then there is the other theater, theoretically experimental, avant-garde, perhaps unconventional, generally “literary,” and maybe even daring. It resides Off Broadway, and even Off Off Broadway, and appeals to, among others, younger audiences, persons of a more intellectual cast, and those with rather shallower pockets.
The boulevard theater is often castigated by its foes as “culinary” or “digestive”;
The Off or Off Off one has no such juicily scornful monikers, though its extreme version is called “fringe,” and can be derogated to as cliquish or coterie-oriented, which it often enough is.
There was a time when the two theaters genuinely diverged, with their very clientele distinguished by sartorial differences. This is no longer the case, what with even Broadway opening-night audiences apt to look quite casual, blending with the usual sprinkling of lumpenproles. Off Broadway, the spectators exude a brazen downtown non-chic, bespeaking their Village or outer-borough provenance.
With this near-interchangeability has come , pretty much, the corresponding fusion of plays and playwrights, with someone like David Lindsay-Abaire straddling both theatrical worlds. Even his titles are proof of his ambidextrousness: Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo are Off Broadway titles; Wonder of the World and Rabbit Hole are Broadway ones. The last-named was so culinary as to have been easily turned into a current mass-audience movie.
Southie pride: Frances McDormand, Tate Donovan, and the cast of Good People.^^^
With Good People, Lindsay-Abaire (born a mere Abaire, but having married a Lindsay, hyphenating himself) shakes off all avant-garde trimmings as he returns, at least in part, to South Boston’s Lower End, the site of his working-class childhood. He writes this directly for Broadway, under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has both Broadway and Off Broadway venues. The South Boston locale, populated by so-called Southies, may be a bit unusual for Broadway, but does not make the writing any less commercial.
It concerns fiftyish Margaret, a saucy Southie, who at play’s start is in the back yard of a dollar-store whose cashier she is, being regretfully cashiered by Stevie, the much younger office foreman, for being chronically late for work. She does have a sort of excuse: a 20-year-old illegitimate retardate daughter, Joyce, who requires extra care, sometimes provided, rather sloppily, by Margaret’s older friend, Dottie.
Fired, Margaret is at sixes and sevens, her never having finished high school because of Joyce making her not very employable. We see her mostly with two older woman friends, Dottie and Jean, sometimes at home, more often in the church basement where they play bingo. Jobless, she summons the courage to drop in on Michael Dillon, a high-school chum emancipated from South Boston via a University of Pennsylvania scholarship, who made good and has become a successful pediatrician.
Mike, even though their more intimate relationship lasted only a couple of months, is not displeased to see her, and even lets her invite herself, as a possible career move, to a party he and his much younger wife, Kate, are giving in their posh Chestnut Hill home. The party is called off because of the little Dillon daughter’s sickness, but Margaret, fully aware of it, nevertheless shows up nosily and cheekily. What happens among Margaret, Mike and Kate, a smart young black woman who teaches English at Boston University, makes up the meat of the play.
What there is of plot is fairly unremarkable, but the characters are full-blooded, and the dialogue is consistently lively, believable, and often funny. It does provide pungent insight into the arriviste Mike, often ironically referred to as “good people”; into the well-meaning but somewhat naive Kate; and into Margaret and her female friends, endowed with what the French call bon bec, a gift of the gab wryly applied to the trivia of the day, and somewhat mischievously to people who may or may not qualify as “good.”
For example, when Mike clams with false modesty to be not rich, merely “comfortable,” Margaret’s tart rejoinder is “I guess that makes me uncomfortable then.” Or take Margaret’s sobering response to her friends’ urging on her a renewed nexus with Mike, “What guy can resist a middle-aged lady in an outfit from Goodwill?” There is even some malicious humor elicited from the fancy cheeses intended for the canceled party, and now eaten by Margaret, Kate and Mike. When Kate offers Margaret a “tour,” it is not as her guest hopes of the house, but merely of the cheese tray.
Much humor, too, is elicited from the silly china rabbits that Dottie peddles, one of which Margaret brings as a gift to the Dillons, where it comes to amusing grief. Or take this, when Kate proposes a change of wines from red, “I prefer white anyway. Which is why I married Michael actually.” To cover his nonracist ass, the author has Mike exclaim, “Wow! That is a terrible joke.” It is all good boulevard writing, but it doesn’t quite soar.
Still, when played by the likes of Frances McDormand (Margaret), Estelle Parsons (Dottie) and four talented others—on superb sets designed by John Lee Beatty and niftily directed by Daniel Sullivan—culinary theater becomes not to be sneezed at haute cuisine.
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John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.