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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As the good ol' boy who wants to gallop away from his past without getting on his high horse, Donovan revels in his character's ambiguities. "He's funny, he's warm, he's a good person — but, like a lot of people, he has some dark stuff, and he's very protective of it. I think when someone comes from a really bad neighborhood and achieves some success, they'll fight and claw to hold on to it like nobody's business. "I feel other people can tell me more about my character than I can. When we were in rehearsal, it was like Beat Up Mikey Dillon Day every day. Everyone was just laying into me about how I'm lying here and I'm doing that there. I'm, like, 'I thought I was a great guy. When I read the script, I thought I was the nicest guy.' Only when we finally got in front of audiences who laughed and were on my side was I O.K."
The other male in the play is the only authentic Bostonian aboard and the only newcomer to Broadway. Patrick Carroll is marking his Main Stem bow here as Stevie, a decent man compelled to can McDormand for her tardiness. "Stevie," he said, "is a big challenge for me. He's a good guy, and I've typically been sent [to audition for] not-so-good guy roles, so for me to play Stevie was an honor—to bring life to this guy from Southie. I'm from Boston originally, but I haven't been there in ten years. I actually went to high school in Chestnut Hill, which is where the second act is."
Graduating to Broadway Actor is a big deal for Carroll. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever felt," he readily confessed. "It really hit me hard a couple of hours before the show, and then I got ready for work and I did the show. Then, the curtain came down, and it hit me again. I'm really proud to be a part of this play with these people. It's just a great experience. I couldn't be happier or more proud to be a part of it."
Sitting in a bingo parlor flanked by Oscar winners (McDormand and a delightfully frisky Estelle Parsons) might throw some actresses, but Becky Ann Baker seamlessly holds her own and gets her fair share of laughs, to boot. "I'm thrilled to be on stage with the two of them," she admitted. "We're having a great time. It's pretty much fun to have that camaraderie. Fran and I have worked together before. Back in 1988, we did Streetcar Named Desire. I was Eunice, and she was Stella to Blythe Danner's Blanche. That friendship came back very easily, and it's wonderful to butt heads with the great Estelle Parsons as characters."
Baker and Parsons took the aforementioned "great, long field trip" to Beantown to investigate the accents of the natives. "I'd never done a Boston one before, let alone this very specific Southie accent. Estelle and I took the Acela to Boston, and I took my little tape recorder. People were so generous and happy to talk to us there." Of course, Parsons could have stayed with what she's got, being a Massachusetts native ("I was born in Lynn, MA, because Marblehead didn't have a hospital, but I grew up in Marblehead"). She even rattled the family tree for an appropriate reference which she plans to thank in her Playbill biography: "I had a step-grandmother, who was a very lower-class person from Revere, which is a lot like the territory in this play. I was very fond of her as a kid — nobody else in the family was — but I spent an awful lot of time with her so I feel very close to this character."
It was a good fit for her character, a dotty old dame named Dottie (McDormand's landlady). "I didn't realize I was going to like her so much. Dan Sullivan, the first day of rehearsal when we did the reading, said to me, 'O.K., Estelle. You can go home and show up when we open.' I was just in the character so much it was really fun.
"I like to play survivor. She reminds me a lot, for no particular reason, of Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny Opera. I like playing people who really have a tough time getting through life but never give up — that's one of the things I love to do."
Of course, Life's hardship in and of itself doesn't necessarily produce good people. Even David Lindsay-Abaire is hard-pressed to spot the species. "One of the questions of the play is, 'What makes a good person?'" From the evidence at hand here, he has concluded, "I think all of these people are good people, and I think none of them are good people. It's very complicated what makes a good person."
The alphabetical parade of first nighters went something like this: Nina Arianda of Born Yesterday, chef Mario Batali, Tony-winning Chicago director Walter Bobbie, Daniel Breaker of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Bobby Cannavale of The Motherf***er with the Hat, Willem Dafoe, Master Class's Tyne Daly, Minsky's and "SNL" actress Rachel Dratch, Jerusalem's John Gallagher Jr., Rabbit Hole's Mary Catherine Garrison, Jayne Houdyshell of The Importance of Being Earnest, Cherry Jones, Tom Kirdahy, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tom Kitt of Next to Normal, Robert Emmet Lunney and the DC Follies' Jan Maxwell, cinematic "Spider-Man" Tobey Maguire, Master Class' Tony-winning author Terrence McNally, actor-now-director (of the "Rabbit Hole" flick) John Cameron Mitchell, Arian Moayed, Tales of the City director Jason Moore, Kristine Nielsen, Alessandro Nivola, Lily Rabe, Tony Roberts, Amy Ryan, Gruesome Playground Injuries's Pablo Schreiber, film director Joel Schumacher and John Slattery of "The Adjustment Bureau" and the Broadway Rabbit Hole.