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Review: GOOD PEOPLE at Keegan Theatre

After an 18-month pandemic pause, Keegan is back with a memorably taut, tart drama that runs through October 3.

Margie pronounces her name with a hard "g." But then everything about Margie's life is hard.

The mouthie from Southie was knocked up in high school and her now-grown daughter, Joyce, is disabled. Unreliable help from her landlady, the aptly named Dottie (Linda High) makes Margie late to work as a dollar-store cashier, so she loses yet another job. Without the nine-something an hour, how will she make rent?

Her tough, scheming pal Jean (Sheri S. Herren) mentions that, on a catering job at a fund-raiser, she ran into Mike, who was their old high-school classmate and, briefly, Margie's teenage boyfriend. He's a doctor now and back in Boston. Why doesn't Margie get back in touch with him, Jean suggests, and see if he has some work for her -- maybe something around the office?

In this way, David Lindsay-Abaire, in his 2011 play Good People, pulls the pin on a memorably incendiary character. You never know just how Margie the grenade will roll or where the psychological shrapnel will fly when she goes off.

In 2019, Keegan Theatre produced the Lindsay-Abaire farce Ripcord, which is a weak script. But in the first production of this season, following 18 months of pandemic closure, Keegan has chosen far better.

A Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter, Lindsay-Abaire was a Southie boy himself, then attended the Milton Academy, Sarah Lawrence College, and Juilliard. Like Mike, he left the old neighborhood behind. Or did they? The absurdities of Ripcord are hopelessly cartoonish. The gritty absurdities of Good People, on the other hand, ring wicked true, class distinctions scraping up against each other until sparks inevitably fly.

There were a couple small dialogue fumbles, and an important moment late in the second act needed a little more emphasis and a few more beats to sink in. But Keegan's production, directed by Josh Sticklin, is, for the most part, taut and tart, and the solid cast makes these conflicted characters wonderfully real to us. Susan Marie Rhea shines particularly as Margie. You've met someone like her before. You want to comfort and console and reassure her even as she manipulates the hell out of you.

Lindsay-Abaire, at his best, has a fantastic ear. The quotidian dialogue between Margie, Jean, Dottie, and Stevie (Joe Baker), Margie's recent boss, has a repetitive, raunchy, feisty staccato that rings painfully, but also amusingly, true. So do the jagged edges of the living-room conversation between Mike (Mike Kozemchak) and his wife, Kate (Simone Brown), in the upper-middle-class Chestnut Hill life Mike has clawed his way to.

Margie bullies into Mike's downtown office, insulting his receptionist, putting him on the defensive about his "lace-curtain Irish" pretensions, and guilting him into inviting her to a birthday party Kate is throwing for him at their house in the 'burbs. Later, he calls to explain that his young daughter is sick and the party is canceled, but Margie doesn't believe him and -- after a long ride on the T -- she shows up anyway. And so begins a most-awkward party for three.

Margie is a first-class button-pusher, and in Mike and Kate's tense, tony home, there are a lot of buttons to push. The couple have had their problems -- they're in counseling -- and Margie drives the wedge between them with the soft tap-tap hammering of a lifetime's resentments, offering passive-aggressive, self-deprecating zingers along the way. "How's the wine?" Mike asks. "How the f___ should I know?" she replies.

Over a hilariously huge, smelly cheese platter, and goaded by Kate, Margie opens a Pandora's box of stories about Mike in the old neighborhood. At first, it seems like Margie will just deflate Mike's boasting about how tough things were. But Margie's mischief is more diabolical than that. She manages to make Mike out as lucky that he had some important advantages -- money enough, smarts, and a dad there to look out for him. "I didn't have anyone watching from the kitchen window for me," she says in a plaint that is characteristically both pitiful and tough.

But she also portrays teenage Mike not just as a crowd-following bully but a racist one. And, oh, did I mention that Kate -- a literature professor at Boston University with her own insecurities -- is Black? Then, as if the stakes aren't high enough at that point, Margie insinuates that Joyce might be Mike's daughter. (Adding a little ironic twist to that scenario, Mike is a fertility specialist.)

You know that in a play called Good People you'll find that phrase twisted every which way, and Lindsay-Abaire does not disappoint. In one sense, the characters are all good people, looking out for their families, trying to live up to their responsibilities. But could Margie with the hard "g" have had it any easier? Were her choices her own? Were Mike's? Did Mike, in callous neglect, leave Margie to her fate? Will Margie get back at him by destroying his life?

Mike calls himself not rich but -- as rich people say -- "comfortable." "I guess that makes me 'uncomfortable," Margie hits back in a manner that is, as usual, kidding -- but not. Could she have finished high school if she hadn't gotten pregnant? Could he have ended up in prison in Walpole if he hadn't had that dad looking out for him through that kitchen window? Would Mike have left for U. Penn if Margie had trapped him through pregnancy into marrying her?

In life, as in their bingo games, the Southie crowd studies the squares and listens for the calls. The odds suck, but here's hoping.


Run time: 2 hours, plus intermission. Purchase tickets here.

From This Author - Alexander C. Kafka

Alexander C. Kafka is a journalist and photographer. He has written about books and the arts for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, D.C. Theatre Scene, and... (read more about this author)

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