BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
It’s a long way from Fargo to South Boston, but Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand makes a touching emotional journey as a working class drudge vaguely hoping to better her dreary existence in “Good People.”
Opening Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, “Good People” is a new play by David Lindsay-Abaire, whose works range from screwy comedies like “Kimberly Akimbo” to the heartbreaking Pulitzer-winner “Rabbit Hole.”
A drama crafted in a minor key, Lindsay-Abaire’s latest piece is a character study that proves to be small in scope but sharp in its emotional regrets and prickly conversation as McDormand portrays Margie, a middle-aged, single mom who loses her cashier job at a dollar store as the story begins.
Margie’s rent is due, her grown-up daughter Joyce is mentally disabled and life looks bleaker than usual in the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood where she grew up as a “Southie.” Then Margie hears that an ex-boyfriend from high school 30 years before, Mike, lately has returned to town as a successful doctor.
Visiting Mike at his office, Margie wangles a reluctant invitation to his suburban home where she stirs up sympathy — and later some trouble — with Mike’s wife, Kate, a university professor.
Earlier in the play, when her pal Jean suggests that Margie pretend that Joyce is Mike’s child in order to scare up some financial support (“Pull a Maury Povich on his ass.”), Margie refuses to go along with the scheme. Eventually she raises the paternity issue with Mike and Kate, but her reason for doing so stems more from sheer frustration than greed.
Neither the compassionate play nor McDormand’s poignant performance suggests that Margie is a bad person. Mildly passive-aggressive by nature, she’s simply run out of options and becomes desperate in her dead-end situation. So Margie grabs at straws like a drowning cat.
For all of his story’s underlying misery, Lindsay-Abaire maintains a lively mood through his quick, often peppery dialogue, which is briskly staged by director Daniel Sullivan until the extended scene in Mike’s living room during the second act. Then the pace slows so the audience can observe Margie gradually recognize how far out of her league she is amid the accomplished likes of Mike and Kate.
McDormand’s portrayal of Margie is unaffected yet bone-deep in its genuineness. Tate Donovan warily plays Mike as a good guy guilt-tripped by Margie’s assertion that he’s forgotten his Southie roots and gone “lace curtain.” Renee Elise Goldsberry gives a subtle edge to her otherwise cordial Kate. Becky Ann Baker depicts the ever-needling Jean with a casually malicious nature. Droll as Margie’s landlady, Estelle Parsons’ drawling accents and quirky manner suggest that she is cheerfully channeling Ruth Gordon.
Designer John Lee Beatty’s sets include a church basement, Margie’s cluttered kitchen and a handsome arts-and-crafts style living room. Like everything else about Manhattan Theatre Club’s world premiere of “Good People,” Beatty’s artistry appears unassuming but is right on the money.
“Good People” continues through May 8 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.