Like so many playwrights since theater was birthed by the ancient Greeks, David Lindsay-Abaire relishes those moments when the underpinnings of a worthy person's self-concept are suddenly ripped away. In Fuddy Meers, amnesia tore the heroine's world apart; in Wonder of the World, it was the discovery of her husband's secret fetish that pitched Cass into the abyss; and in Rabbit Hole, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, the death of a son sent Becca into a tailspin. All three of these Lindsay-Abaire plays have received fine productions in Charlotte, Wonder of the World winning CL's Best Comedy Award in 2004, and now with Good People, premiering at CAST through Nov. 9, we have another L-A gem.
Here, the unforeseen misfortunes and revelations pile up on Margie, who is fired from her cashier position at a dollar store in South Boston — for reasons that turn out to be beyond her control. Margie's punctuality at this crummy job depends on her landlord Dottie arriving in time to care for Joyce, her handicapped adult daughter. She could get a more reliable sitter, but it would cost more, so Margie has gambled and lost.
For Margie, this latest catastrophe is emblematic of a Southie's hard life, a vicious circle of crappy choices that only a stroke of good luck can help you escape. Between scenes where Margie confronts her boss Stevie or her old flame Mike, Lindsay-Abaire shuttles to scenes at the neighborhood bingo parlor, deftly toying with the notion that the luck theory might actually be right.
Mike did escape long ago after Margie broke up with him the summer before he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Now he's a respected doctor practicing reproductive endocrinology, with a posh home in Chestnut Hill that Margie regards, with a Southie's jealous disdain, as "lace-curtain" though she's never been near the place. Though he bridles at hearing the pejorative hurled at him, Mike signals repeatedly that he wishes to distance himself from South Boston in general and Margie in particular, reluctant to see her at his downtown office, let alone at his home.
Margie barges in anyway, calls Mike on his newly acquired prejudices, and bags an invitation to her former beau's birthday party, where she plans to do some job hunting. Or does she? Just as we reach intermission, Mike calls to cancel.
When Margie decides to hop a T train and show up at Mike's doorstep anyway, we're aboard for a scene that's among the most adroitly set up that I've seen in many a year, with revelations and reversals going off like popcorn. Perhaps the most delicious reversal occurs right at the start when Mike's wife Kate mistakes Margie for the help — a reversal of an occurrence that is repeated hundreds of times weekly across our great nation. For Kate is not only considerably younger than her husband, she's African American.
I'll throw a veil over the rest of the twists we encounter in Chestnut Hill, except to say that, in the heat of the fiery arguments, Margie's understanding of the breakup and Mike's notion that his success is self-made are shaken to their foundations. Luck has played a pivotal role in one of their destinies while, in the other's life, choice has been a delusion. Back at the bingo game, Lindsay-Abaire delights in throwing three more twists our way before he's done with us — and in the last line, a tantalizing ambiguity.
Tim Baxter-Ferguson's set design sequences four or five building exteriors, which is a little bit puzzling since only the first scene, in an alley outside the dollar store, actually occurs outdoors. Scenes are mostly delineated by the furnishings, with a couple of revolving panels in passageways supplying bric-a-brac for Mike's office and his living room. The luxury we saw seven weeks ago in the seaside guest cottage at Martha's Vineyard with CAST's production of Elemeno Pea has virtually vanished.
Director and lighting designer Tony Wright hasn't allowed any other tone deafness into this production. On the contrary, he has worked diligently with his actors to make sure their accents are thick with Southie flavoring where it's required. This at times can be as difficult on the audience as it is on the performers, for the way "lace-curtain" is pronounced here will sound like "lace cuttin'" outside a 200-mile radius of Boston.
Cynthia Farbman Harris fittingly sports the thickest Southie accent as Margie. It might take you a few pages to acclimate to her sound, but she's with us for nearly all 111 minutes of this production, so you have time. The accent isn't the only delightful adjustment we make, for although Margie isn't exactly Eliza Doolittle, she's by far the coarsest leading lady Harris has ever played, and she's quite wonderful. Venturing out of her neighborhood, Harris keeps subtly reminding us that Margie is over her head. Equally out of his element as Mike is the Tricky Dick from CAST's Frost/Nixon, Lamar Wilson, magnificently uneasy in reconnecting with his Southie past, beautifully registering the epiphany Margie unloads on him.
Newcomer Alexis Louder is the last character to appear as Kate, long after we've realized that Lindsay-Abaire's title is mostly irony. Even though there are marital problems with Mike, we don't get any bad vibes from Kate, and Louder is quite up to delivering the piercing analysis that deflates the guilt trip Margie is attempting to lay on Mike. As Stevie, Daniel O'Sullivan is so adorably irresolute in firing Margie that he lets us entertain the notion that the playwright's title will apply sincerely to all his characters. Annette B. Gill disabuses us fairly quickly of that notion in the ensuing scene as Dottie, the lax caregiver and the heartless, mercenary landlord.
Rounding out the cast is Anne Lambert as Margie's cynical old friend Jeanne. She serves a couple of useful purposes, beginning by helping us to differentiate between Margie's coarseness and true trashiness, then in frequently pinning Dottie's ears back when she becomes irritating — something Margie is too meek, polite and beholden to do. Somebody needs to tell the old biddy that those rabbit figurines she crafts and sells for $5 are schlock.
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