By: Benjamin Nockles
In “Good People,” Frances McDormand convincingly plays an unemployed mother struggling to make rent for her South Boston apartment and support her retarded, adult daughter. This play is uniquely complemented by an astonishingly detailed set as real as the poverty in today’s difficult economy, yet what startled me was the effect they’ve engineered of masking the stage during changes with three sliding panels to mimic the effect of a cinematic transition. More than once in the first act I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching television.
Out of desperation for a job, Maggie (McDormand) looks up an old boyfriend (Tate Donovan) who managed to escape “Southie” and entered a wealthy career in medicine. When the opportunity arises, she latches onto a reluctant birthday party invitation in hopes of mixing with other doctors and landing a job “filing papers… or something.” In a brilliant second act, what was intended to be an impersonal invitation becomes something much more personal after the party is cancelled but Maggie shows up anyway. Along with the doctor and his wife (Renée Elise Goldsberry,) the three put up the courteous front of “good” hosts and a “good” houseguest, yet can’t help but waver on the line between upholding dignity and doing what it takes to survive.
All together, the play truly reveals both the beautiful and the ugly side of human goodness, or at least our best shot at it. The second act forces each character into a corner, which brings out a fantastic display of talent from McDormand, Donovan and Goldsberry. Simultaneously, the themes of the play are physically embodied as the sliding panels are withheld and the inter-workings of the set are revealed to underline the vulnerability of these characters after conflict rips them from their veil of selflessness and exposes their self-serving intentions. That’s not to say the play will leave you depressed, after all, a play called “Good People” wouldn’t leave the audience without some act of true selflessness.
The message certainly serves the play’s favor. On the other hand, though all this is going on in the marvelous second act, the first act (which primarily features McDormand and the other half of the cast) merely serves as a prologue to the second and is substantiated by comedic filler. Maggie is clearly desperate to find a new job, but otherwise scenes featuring breakfast conversation or bingo gossip hardly feel active. It was barely enough to keep my attention and until the second act I was truly more concerned with how I would a review. Consequently, even after the redemptive second act, I was left wondering, “why Broadway?” and as I walked out of the theatre, an audience member commented rather appropriately, “That would have been an amazing play for college.”
Good message, good talent, Good People, but not quite extraordinary.
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