Socially and scholastically, they start out as kids in the same class in the grim and gritty dead-end of South Boston — these Good People who set up residence, officially, March 3 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Then, foreshadowing the gigantic gap that will in time grow, separate and divide them, she falls back a grade because of an unwanted pregnancy and he springs forth on academic drive and scholarship steam.
By the time they meet up again — 30 years after their two-month high-school fling — Mike (Tate Donovan) and Margaret (Frances McDormand) have moved into two different worlds. He has pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the poverty of his youth and become a successful fertility doctor, settling snugly into the chic, upscale suburb of Chesnut Hill with a beautiful black wife (Renee Elise Goldberry) and their daughter. Margie's stuck where she started — in South Boston's Lower End — and currently she's sinking fast, a single mom freshly fired from a $9.20-an-hour job at a dollar store. The prospects of employment unite the ex-lovers, and she's desperately unchoosey: If not receptionist, how about babysitter?
Somehow, somewhere, a love story has been lost here in the gathering shadows of today's economic realities. These two couldn't come together comfortably even by pole-vaulting over such huge social barriers, and therein lies the rub of this painfully poignant, fiercely funny situation David Lindsay-Abaire has set before us.
At the after-party held at B.B. King's, the playwright said, "I grew up in South Boston, and I knew I wanted to write about the old neighborhood for a long, long time, but it took many years for me to finally get brave enough to write about it and the people I grew up with that I respect and love."
The topic of class-clash is what drew director Daniel Sullivan to the case at hand — that and, in a word, "David. I just love his work, wherever he writes." (He previously directed Lindsay-Abaire to a Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole, and the issue then was a couple overcoming the loss of their only child.) "Here, I particularly like the fact that it was a play about class, which you don't see American writers doing very often."
(For more about this, read Playbill.com's recent Brief Encounter interview with David Lindsay-Abaire.)
Given the class collision-course the play is on, Sullivan allowed Charlotte Fleck, the dialect coach, to have her wonderful way with the cast, and there are hard g's all over the stage. "Some of the actors, just on their own, went up to 'Southie' and spent a little time recording some of the folks up there," Sullivan said.[flipbook]
His favorite moment of visualizing the class difference is McDormand's fish-out-of-water fashion statement at the top of the second act — a touching attempt to "clean up real good" to invade the posh home of a well-heeled old boyfriend. The look, Sullivan said, was a collaboration between the actress and costume designer David Zinn, both abetted by some old family photographs from the author.
The scene runs an excruciating 44 minutes and consumes most of the second act. For Goldsberry, it's her only scene, and, understandably, "it feels to me a little like being in a one-act play. The more uncomfortable I feel, the better I think it's going.
"I think David Lindsay-Abaire did the actress playing this role a huge service. She's smart, she's funny, she surprises you in the end in terms of how aware she actually is. Her concern at the beginning seems to be just kinda keeping order in the home, and, by the end of it, we see how vigorously, how violently she will fight for that."
Goldsberry's Broadway history has been musical (Rent, The Color Purple, The Lion King), but she's very adept at hitting the right emotional notes here. "I've done a lot of straight plays in my life, and I've done a lot of TV films where I'm not a singer, but there's something about being on Broadway in a straight play that has a certain cache to it, and I'll accept any cache. However, I don't necessarily believe that you're a better actor because you're not in a musical. If you're going to break into song at some point, you have to be a great actor."
The scene surprised the guy who created it. "I didn't realize how funny the second act would be," admitted Lindsay-Abaire. "The audience is really responding to someone who doesn't belong in this environment, and these two other people who probably aren't used to dealing with this sort of person, having to contend with her."
Surprises, he said, are a constant when a new play is coming together. "Just being in rehearsal, a lot of rewriting happens. Seeing it on its feet with actors makes it, literally, a brand-new play. I'd never seen it on its feet, ever, before rehearsals started so a lot of changes happen then. And then, of course, when you put it in front of an audience, it's going to change some more. You hear when people are confused or where you thought it might be funny where it isn't funny and vice versa. The audience is the last ingredient, always. We just stopped tweaking four days ago."
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