David Lindsay-Abaire’s homage to the work-worn, hard-edged folk of South Boston (known as ‘Southies’), “Good People”, gets a sincere production from a strong acting ensemble in WaterTower Theatre’s regional premiere running through June 29 in Addison. Its 2011 Manhattan Theatre Club production won numerous prestigious award nominations from the reigning East Coast set, winning Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Leading Actress in a Play for Frances McDormand and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the 2010-2011 season. Yet not all New York critics concurred with the honors, questioning the play’s major thematic flaw. “In Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s America, success is purely a matter of luck, and virtue inheres solely in those who are luckless.” Terry Teachout, (March 4, 2011). “Lindsay-Abaire’s Southie Class Portrait”. The Wall Street Journal. I agree with Teachout and find the play wanting. I’m sure McDormand’s nuanced; intense portrayal of the protagonist evoked buckets of sympathy and inspired the various award committees. She’s that sort of actor. But it doesn’t change the fact that the show has a pretentious, largely indefensible premise, and one that furrows the brow if you think about it much. It makes a villain out of the one character who managed to find a better life for himself (without deliberately hurting anyone) and a heroine out of the bitter, rough-edged opportunist who tries to blackmail him, sort of, maybe. There’s a soap opera-is “what if” element, too. Hard to feel engaged with that, hard to not feel cheated with a politically correct premise and an array of overdone stereotypes. The white doctor has married an upper class, educated black woman; the protagonist’s landlady is greedy and uncaring. All with heavy Boston accents. Aren’t those stock characters in lots of television cop shows set in Boston?
In WaterTower Theatre’s production, Scott Osborne’s set does nothing to make the acting ensemble’s task any easier, given the script challenges and the Boston accents that don’t roll naturally off of Texas actors’ tongues, anyway. The scenic painting/ background looks like a community theatre rush job. At least one set change opening night took longer to execute than the scene that followed it. In Act Two, the action takes place in a doctor’s home in a nice upper class neighborhood. Osborne’s set furnishings look worn, threadbare and “thrifty”. Paintings and bric-a-brac are distractingly unsuited to the class and character of a traditional upper class home, oddball, funky. A dingy greenish sofa sits backed up close and parallel to the upstage entrance, the main door into the house. It’s not just entirely unlikely in its placement in a nice home’s entryway (??) but awkward for any actor entering/exiting through the front door. A prop note: a catered cheese tray comes in for the unexpected guest, consisting of random slabs of cheese…no crackers, no veggies, no fruit in neat little circular rows? No ramekin of salad dressing? What classy caterer would present that? The living room’s tight, linear layout made all the actors move stiffly in the space opening night, crossing anxiously as if negotiating an obstacle course. I found myself worrying more with the raw elements of production once I understood the politically sappy, limited nature of the play. Neither thrilled me. Wondering where James Crawford as the successful doctor was going piqued my interest. And why?
The acting ensemble is first rate, even if some accents fade in and out: Pam Dougherty, James Crawford, Jessica Cavanaugh, David Price, Junene K, Michelle Courtney Schwartz. But they can do only so much with this peculiar script and the awkward playing space they must perform on. I saw barely a hint of the beautiful stage pictures director Rene Moreno usually creates. My instinct tells me the physical realities he had to deal with in this production may have not been what he had envisioned originally. Spike that lemonade and freeze more ice cubes. “Good People” isn’t WaterTower’s crowning achievement, but it does make a sincere attempt to entertain its audience. Chilled lemonade sure tastes great in the summer….
TICKETS: 972.450.6232 www.watertowertheatre.org
Robert Hart photo.