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02 Mar 2011

David Lindsay-Abaire
David Lindsay-Abaire

The playwright of Shrek the Musical, Fuddy Meers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole drew on his old neighborhood to write Broadway's Good People.


David Lindsay-Abaire has returned to Broadway with the style of play that won him a Tony Award nomination and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Rabbit Hole — a drama tinged with brusque humor and filled with yearning people who are proud, sad and heartbroken. Good People, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is set in the area where the writer was raised, in working-class South Boston (known as "Southie"), a neighborhood where the downturn in the economy has stretched an already overextended population. Back in the day, Lindsay-Abaire's ticket out was an academic day pass — a scholarship to a private high school in the affluent Boston suburbs. He was one of the Southie kids most likely to succeed, and he did.

His Good People, directed by Rabbit Hole director Daniel Sullivan, stars Frances McDormand as Margaret Walsh, a paycheck-to-paycheck single mom in Southie who reaches out to an old lover, Mike, played by Tate Donovan, who became a doctor and moved to the other side of the tracks. The tension has been touching audiences, who have been giving the world-premiere production standing ovations since its first week. Lindsay-Abaire talked to us by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

Had you always wanted to write about your old neighborhood?
David Lindsay-Abaire: I'd been wanting to write about it for a long time, but it took me a long time to do it, obviously. There were a couple other attempts to write about something in the neighborhood, but I put them away quickly. They didn't feel right to me, and so I think that I had to mature, both as a person and as a writer, to the place where I felt relatively capable of writing about the old neighborhood. … I don't know if I knew this when I was struggling a few years ago, but now, upon reflection, I guess I wanted to write very responsibly about these people, because I care about them deeply. I wanted to write truthfully and respectfully about them, and maybe it's taken this long for me to do that.

Your early work has absurdist colors. An absurdist play about these people would have not tasted proper…?
DLA: I guess. Maybe it's possible to write that play, but for whatever reason, I didn't feel like I could write the absurdist version of it. I don't want these people to seem ridiculous, because they're so not ridiculous to me. Not that I think of my absurdist characters as being ridiculous, although they do sometimes behave ridiculously. It's more, I think, about perception, and I wouldn't want people to perceive them as being ridiculous.


Frances McDormand and Tate Donovan
photo by Joan Marcus

Did you know that you wanted to write about a play about class?
DLA: That I did know, for this play, in particular. I kept hearing, as many of us American playwrights hear, about British playwrights writing about class. "Oh, the Brits always write about class! Where are the American plays about class? Why don't American playwrights write about class?" And maybe they do and those plays just don't get produced. I don't know, but I got tired of hearing about it, and I thought, "Class has always been a huge part of my life." Obviously, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and I went to a private school when I was 11, and so, I was aware of class all the time, every day, and so it was something that I certainly felt I knew about, so I thought: "I don't know. Maybe I could write about class." The other thing is, I didn't want to write didactically about class. I feel like a lot of British plays about class…are didactic. I sort of feel like, "Oh, there's the playwright up on his soap box, giving me a lecture." And so, I didn't want to write that kind of play, either, obviously. At some point in the process, I thought, "Whatever your ideas of class might be, put that aside. Just write about these people, and the class ideas will come up." And so, I did that… So yes, I was writing about class, but I also abandoned the idea about writing a "class play" and just hoped it would happen. [Laughs.]

You were writing about people —
DLA: That's all.

And when you say you were aware of the class divide as a kid, you were aware because you went to a private school and the private-school kids let you know that you were a working-class kid?
DLA: No. I mean, it was more of my own making. It was just, they were incredibly different than I was. Their lives were different than mine. I mean, I was aware of class in the old neighborhood just because nobody really had anything in Southie, money-wise, and so I was aware of it then — but everybody was sort of in the same boat. But then when I went to Milton Academy, people dressed differently. People would go away on spring vacation and come back with tans, while I had spent two weeks watching television in Southie. Those sorts of things always were present: what they had and how they dressed and how I was different. The other kids at Milton didn't make me feel that way, but I was completely aware of it. It's not like I was the poor kid that got picked on. In fact, I was well-liked at Milton, and I was the funny kid, and so I was actually embraced. But still, I couldn't not think about how different they were.

Were you at Milton from junior-high through high school?
DLA: Yes, starting in seventh grade.


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