BWW Reviews: GOOD PEOPLE Does Good for the Fulton Theatre
It's a play. It's by David Lindsay-Abaire. It contains a handful of people, mostly female, and it pulled at least two Tony nominations, winning for lead actress. Is it RABBIT HOLE, from 2007 (for which Cynthia Nixon won a Tony)? No, it's GOOD PEOPLE, which won a Tony for Frances McDormand, from 2011, which ran a limited engagement (read "did not run nearly long enough") and is, alas, best known from its Broadway run as the play which stopped dead one night when an audience member who had failed to silence her cell phone actually took the call while in the audience, and the cast stopped dead in their tracks. It's a shame that the phone call anecdote is the best-known thing about a recent theatrical award winner, because, while GOOD PEOPLE is perhaps not a great show, it is, like the people it depicts, a good one. It was good enough to win the Critics Circle award for Best Play in 2010-2011, and it's good enough to be worth an evening at the Fulton. Directed by Bernard Harvard of the Walnut Street Theatre, it's perhaps not the Fulton's greatest drama production ever, but, once again, it's a good one.
It's true that the choices we make affect our lives, as Mike, the doctor, played by Dan Olmstead, reminds our anti-heroine, Margie - playEd Strongly by Fulton veteran Julie Czarnecki. It's also true, as Margie, the South Boston, or "Southie", lifer, reminds him, that everyone doesn't always have a choice. Some people have the chance, like Mike, to escape lower-class and working-class surroundings; some, like Margie, don't. But Margie's tough - she's a survivor, unlike another high school friend who's recently died on the mean neighborhood streets. So when Stevie (Jered McLenigan), old buddy and Margie's boss at the dollar store where she works, is ordered by the regional manager to fire her, you're sure she'll find some way to land on her feet.
If this story line - mean streets, dead friends, the question of whether escape from your surroundings is possible - sounds grim, it's certainly tempered with fine moments of incidental levity. Much of that levity comes from Margie's two friends, survivors themselves. Dottie, played by Sharon Alexander (the role was played by Estelle Parsons on Broadway), is Margie's friend, landlady, and babysitter of Joyce, Margie's adult but disabled child. Dottie has a vested interest in seeing Margie make it, since she wants Margie's rent money - and the threat is that otherwise, Dottie will move her son into Margie's downstairs apartment. Dottie is also a craftswoman, if that's the term for women who make rabbit figures by gluing Styrofoam balls, bunny ears, and "googly eyes" to inverted clay flowerpots. She makes money selling the rabbits at various places, including the all-important neighborhood Catholic church bingo game. Jean, her other friend, closer to Margie's age, is portrayed with a vengeance by Denise Whelan, last seen at the Fulton as Mama Rose in GYPSY. Dottie and Jean are both caustic wits, especially when they have a chance to turn those wits upon each other, and their comic byplay at Margie's apartment and in the bingo hall is the great highlight of this production.
If there's a star in this show, however, besides Czarnecki, it's undoubtedly the sets. Robert Klingelhoefer has created a revolving stage, not normally used in a smaller drama such as this, with perfectly thought-out sets, particularly Mike's Chestnut Hill living room and Margie's apartment. But even the minimalist dollar store dock area and the equally minimalist bingo hall evoke precisely what they are, and every prop contributes a needed element to the show, from the bingo daubers to the vase on Mike's fireplace mantel. And that vase gets a workout when Margie comes to visit Mike at his escaped-from-South-Boston home in upscale Chestnut Hill and begins the conversation Mike fears, with his much younger and decidedly un-Southie wife, Kate (Danielle G. Herbert, in her first and, one hopes, not last Fulton appearance). As Kate has never met any of Mike's old friends from the neighborhood before, Mike is forced through the revelations of his history just as Margie is forced to remember their joint history in front of Kate.
Some of the clashes in the play are obvious - old neighborhood versus new associates, poverty versus money, young married woman with toddler versus older single woman with adult child, employer versus employee, landlord versus tenant. Others are more subtle, including the tensions between long-standing friends, and the stranglehold that money holds over everyone's lives. The greatest tension is the one of whether Margie is doing the right thing if she follows Jean's advice to get money from the now-wealthy Mike, claiming he's Joyce's father, or if she'll tell him that he's not the father of her child. Given the truth revealed at the end of the play, which of those is what a good person does? Although in this case Margie does make a choice, whether she does the right thing is open to debate.
Czarnecki is a fine, tough-as-nails but still vulnerable Margie, possessed of a Southie accent that does the neighborhood proud. Whelan and Alexander, as Margie's friends Jean and Dottie, are a comic force to be reckoned with, and it's a pleasure to see last year's Broadway World nominee, Whelan, on the Fulton stage again. Both are fine actors, but together they are indeed greater than the sum of their parts, and their presence can be felt even when they are not on stage.
McLenigan, a Barrymore award winner, is more than capable as Stevie, the conflicted friend of his employee, and though it's necessary to the ending of the play that he recede into the background after the first scene, his presence is always welcome. Herbert and Olmstead are equally competent, but perhaps slightly mis-directed; Kate seems to hide behind the sectional couch in her living room rather than being the forceful, brassy professor the audience knows that she is, or can be; Mike, equally, seems to pull back just slightly, only coming into his own when he's alone in the living room with Margie and his Southie roots finally let themselves free. Their characters need to emerge more, and to breathe; one hopes that during the course of this production that will develop.
GOOD PEOPLE is a good show, and the Fulton's is a good production of it. It's a fine example of why small-cast dramas are often the best kind of theatre. Especially if you haven't seen any of Lindsay-Abaire's other work, it's worth your catching it. At the Fulton through February 17; call 717-394-7133 or visit www.fultontheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Fulton Theatre