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When being good isn't good enough

Theater Review: "Good People" at Geva Theatre Center 

When being good isn't good enough

In David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People," you're always kept guessing about who the good people really are. As the play opens, Margie (Constance Macy) is being fired from her job at a dollar store in South Boston by the manager (Nick Abeel) for her excessive lateness. Margie is the single mother of a handicapped daughter, cared for by her landlady Dottie (Peggy Cosgrave).

Margie is sinking ever lower among the 99 percent, so at the urging of her friend, Jean (Dee Pelletier), she visits an old boyfriend, Mike (Sean Patrick Reilly) -- who got out of South Boston and became a well-to-do doctor -- to ask for a job, which Margie does in a typically prideful, prickly way. Mike doesn't have one, but he does invite her to a party at his home where Margie can network. When the party is cancelled, Margie doesn't believe Mike and shows up anyway, confronting him about some less-than-good events in their "Southie" past. She lashes out at him and his wife Kate (Nicole Lewis), who lash back in no uncertain terms. When Mike tells Margie she is dealing with the results of bad choices, she tells him he's been hard-working, but also lucky; she never had the same choices, and she never will.

There is definitely a political aspect to "Good People," though I was more interested in Lindsay-Abaire's depiction of people living just a few degrees north of economic disaster and how that constant uncertainty and worry abrades the spirit. It's difficult to be a good person when you don't know how you'll pay the rent, or when homeless people are found dead on the sidewalk a couple of blocks away.

Like the JCC CenterStage's current production, "Bad Jews," and Geva's production last season of "Clybourne Park" -- plays with which this current Geva production has more than a few things in common -- "Good People" is finely cast, extremely funny, and ultimately very moving.

Playing Margie on Broadway won Frances McDormand a Tony Award in 2011, and I can understand why. The character is in every scene, running the emotional gamut from good humor to despair. Talking is this character's defense mechanism, and while Margie's talk is sharp and clever, she is also shown as defensive and evasive. Constance Macy truly embodies Margie: her slouching posture looks both defeated and defiant, and she can use her South Boston accent like a weapon. Even in her most defiant moments, the wounded look in Macy's eyes reveals the pain under her motor-mouthed bravado. Margie may or may not be a "good person," but she is a fascinating character, repellent and sympathetic.

Margie could easily overwhelm the play, but Mark Cuddy's sensitive and sensible direction balances this striking character perfectly with the others in the play. Lindsay-Abaire seems to stack the deck a bit against Mike, but Reilly does give the impression of someone tough enough and smart enough to get out of South Boston. Mike's first encounter with Margie in his office is a finely acted and directed scene beautifully suggesting their shared background and a mutual suspicion.

The actors playing Jean and Dottie might as well wear signs that say "Comic Relief," but the characters do offer some sharp observations of their own. Pelletier and Cosgrave play them with gusto, and there is a sense that beneath their sarcasm, they do care about Margie. Lewis and Abeel both convincingly play characters who start out in familiar tracks but who bring surprising twists to the play's second act.

Lindsay-Abaire could include South Boston in his cast list: The tightly-knit working-class community of "Southie" is a constant presence in the characters' memories and mentalities. This is enhanced in Jo Winiarski's massive set. Against a background of South Boston row houses, four triangular shapes form and reform to produce various settings, all of which hem the characters in. Only when the action switches to Mike and Kate's neighborhood is there a suggestion of air and green trees.

"Good People" is a satisfyingly well-made play -- as you might expect from a writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Rabbit Hole." It has perhaps a few too many quips, and its ending is a bit predictable, but underneath its tidy construction, the play asks some nagging, uncomfortable questions and suggests some difficult answers. And it gets its characters' tone of voice eloquently right.

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