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Arts and Entertainment

"Good People" Is a Great Production of an Okay Play

Jane Kaczmarek, Jon Tenney and Cherise Boothe in "Good People" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo - Michael Lamont
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Once in a while I see shows that are perfectly good, but just don’t move me all that much. Often these are plays that arrive with an impressive pedigree from New York or London, huge popular hits or award-winners. Although as a matter of habit I try to always keep my expectations low, the fact is that a tiny part of me is expecting them to be great, and I’m disappointed when they’re just good. Such is the case with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, which gets a terrific production at the Geffen Playhouse, but the play itself never quite impressed me as first tier.

The story is set in economically depressed South Boston. Margie (Jane Kaczmarek) has just been fired from her job at the 99-Cent store. She desperately needs money to care for her mentally challenged adult daughter, and she asks her friends for advice. Her landlady Dottie (Marylouise Burke) means well but doesn’t see a job in Margie’s near future. Jean (Sara Botsford), however, has heard that Margie’s ex-boyfriend from high school, Mike (Jon Tenney), is back in town and now he’s a doctor. Margie goes to see him about a possible job, and he politely demurs. Underestimating Margie’s desperation, however, may cost him dearly.

Kaczmarek is excellent as Margie, heartbreaking as she tries to talk her manager out of firing her, but she also reveals the character’s ruthless side as Margie verbally ties Mike into knots of guilt and anger. Tenney is equally fine as someone who isn’t necessarily a terrible man, but who has done terrible things along the way, his easy charm gradually eroding into rage. Cherise Boothe adds measurably to the production as Mike’s kind wife Kate, whose generous nature does not preclude a sharp mind and little tolerance for being played as a fool. Burke steals the show as the querulous Dottie in a funny and loveable performance, and Botsford is a brassy hoot as the self-described “mouthy from Southie.” Brad Fleischer brings a quiet dignity to Margie’s long-suffering manager Stevie.

Director Matt Shakman’s contribution here seems mainly to be the high quality of the performances, which feel lived-in and authentic, but the pacing sometimes drags a bit. Almost all of Lindsay-Abaire’s play works, with the exception of a long pre-intermission bingo scene that seems to exist simply to pad out the play’s running time. The main problem is that the play’s message—a lot of success is due to luck—is neither original nor particularly compelling. A secondary issue is that Margie’s motivations and morality seem to shift on a dime in the second act, which is okay except that it’s unconvincing. Craig Siebels’ sets are compact but effective, with the exception of Mike’s home, which is large and exquisite.

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"Good People" runs through May 13 at the Geffen Playhouse. Tickets are available online.