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Monday, October 15, 2012

New American Plays: Good People and The Motherfucker with the Hat

Nancy E. Carroll, Karen MacDonald, and Johanna Day in Good People (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In their Boston premieres I caught up to two worthwhile American plays I missed last season in New York. Good People is the latest by David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for Rabbit Hole – to date the only one of his works that has been made into a movie. Rabbit Hole focuses on a couple who are trying to handle life after the death, in a car accident, of their little boy. It’s one of those dramas (the Barbara Hershey-Geoffrey Rush plot in the fine Australian film Lantana is another) about the tension that the loss of a child creates between parents who mourn differently. (Both plays owe a debt to the great Robert Frost poem “Home Burial.”) I thought the play was banal but effective, and it felt authentic – as if it had come out of someone’s actual experience. The most surprising development, the friendship that grows up between the child’s mother and the teenager who, through no fault of his own, killed the boy on the road was the aspect of the narrative that worked the best, though in truth I believed in all of the relationships. But on stage the real show was Cynthia Nixon, who used that razor’s-edge anger she’s so brilliant at to illuminate the way a perceptive, intelligent woman deals with an unimaginable loss. The movie version was well done, too, but if you’d seen Nixon on stage you felt a void in the center because Nicole Kidman, who has a tendency to soften her characters, took over the part.

Good People is half of a good play. It’s about the survivor’s skills and class consciousness of working-class folks who grew up in South Boston – “Southie” – and about their bond, which is both bitter and proud, and how those who’ve stayed (the vast majority, not counting those who wound up dead or in jail) feel about those who got out. The protagonist, Margie (Johanna Day), loses her job at a dollar store in the opening scene. Her boss, Stevie (Nick Westrate), is about a decade younger and she’s known him all his life, so when he fires her, even though he does so only under pressure from the district manager, who would otherwise fire him, it still feels like a betrayal, especially to her best friend Jean (Karen MacDonald). The district manager’s complaint is Margie’s chronic lateness, which, we learn over the course of the play, is due to circumstances beyond her control. She has a grown-up child who’s severely mentally handicapped and she relies on her landlady, Dottie (Nancy E. Carroll), for babysitting; when Dottie shows up late, Margie can’t get to work on time. This and other extenuating factors have cost her one job after another. She’s in a hole she can’t seem to get out of, and she’s occupied it all her life. (Her daughter’s father, a local boy she dated after high school, took off long ago and provides no child support.) When Jean tells her that another Southie kid, Mike (Michael Laurence), who managed to get into an Ivy League college and medical school, is back in Boston, she decides, at her friend’s urging, to drop by his office to see if he can dig up some kind of menial work for her. “Southie pride,” Jean suggests, though we learn eventually that more than Southie blood connects them, since he was the boy she dated in high school.

Michael Laurence and Johanna Day (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The first act is a hard-boiled comedy set firmly in the era of the economic downturn whose tough, deprecating and self-deprecating working-class humor is reminiscent of the early seasons of the TV show Roseanne. And throughout act one the production, directed by Kate Whoriskey, is lively and sometimes extremely funny. The three actresses, bantering at breakneck speed, are excellent, and Westrate, whose role is more in the background, doesn’t make a false move either. Laurence is less convincing, and since he’s the only one on stage in act one who doesn’t speak with a Southie accent he seems to have dropped in from some other state. (Even if Mike worked hard to erase any trace of his roots, you’d expect some tinge of an accent to color his speech when he iasn’t looking – especially in conversation with an old girl friend from the neighborhood. It would certainly be a more interesting vocal choice.) Still, the interaction between Mike and Margie that makes up most of the second half of the first act is complicated and full of unexpected (and potentially dangerous) turns and twists. She keeps challenging him, and he keeps rising to the bait, even though he tries to make it seem as though she’s the one with an axe to grind. When she makes jokes about his rising in the world (he and his family live in Chestnut Hill, one of the wealthiest of the Boston suburbs), calling him “lace curtain Irish,” he resents the implication that he thinks he’s superior to the people who grew up with; when she calls him rich and he insists he’s comfortable, she snaps back, “I guess that makes me uncomfortable.” They both pretend they’re joshing each other, but he’s not as good as she is at carrying off the fa├žade of jocularity, because he’s lost any skill he might have had at it during adolescence (he doesn’t need it any more) and she’s never stopped honing hers. It’s armor for her – the way you hold your own when your life is an unending series of kicks and bruises. They wind up in what she calls, accurately, a game of chicken. He mentions that his wife is giving him a birthday party and she says often and pointedly enough that he’d never invite her that of course he has to – though he tells her he’s sure she’ll find an excuse to pull out. That’s his way of expressing his discomfort with the invitation, with the thought of her mixing with his friends. But she thinks she might be able to talk her way into a job with one of them (since Mike couldn’t or wouldn’t cough up a job for her), and anyway she’s curious and daring enough to want to attend. Then he calls to cancel, explaining that his little girl is sick so he and his wife thought it best to cancel the party. Margie doesn’t believe him, so she determines to show up anyway.

That’s act one, which is smart and engrossing. The problem is act two, when Good People turns from a class comedy into a class melodrama. Almost the entire act is a long scene among Margie, Mike and his wife Kate (Rachael Holmes, who’s quite good) when Margie shows up at their home and learns that Mike was telling the truth about the cancelled occasion but stays, at Kate’s insistence, for wine and cheese. The material Lindsay-Abaire is working with here is sharp-edged and fascinating. Kate is black, the daughter of a doctor Mike worked under; her roots are expensively educated semi-bohemian (she grew up in Georgetown), and she’s an English professor at Boston University. She and Mike have been having marital problems that they’re still working through, thanks – Kate believes – to a counselor she insists they have to keep seeing (he makes it clear that he’s indulging her wishes).  When Margie appears at their door, Kate is delighted: she’s never met any of Mike’s Southie friends, and she feels that’s a side of him she doesn’t know enough about. She doesn’t know – for a while – that Mike and Margie were more than friends, because Mike tells Margie he thinks it would be better if she didn’t, even though Kate doesn’t seem like the jealous type (and in fact she turns out not to be). But Margie says more than Mike is comfortable with, even before she reveals the truth about their relationship. He’s presented his upbringing as tougher than it was – unlike most of his classmates, he had a supportive father who encouraged him to excel academically and apply to good universities. And his presentation of his growing-up years, which is highly romanticized, omits the darkest moment of his adolescence, when he might easily have wound up in prison.

Mike is a compelling character, but the play makes the mistake of demonizing him. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in Southie, and though clearly he made good and got out, a kind of Southie pride seems to have gotten in the way of his portrayal of Mike, who turns out to be several kinds of snake in the grass. The title comes from a line Margie uses to Jean about Mike when his name first comes up, that he’s “good people.” Jean isn’t so sure, and by the end of act two the phrase has turned (unfortunately) ironic. The play is well structured but in that crowd-pleasing way that always makes me uneasy. The audience at the Huntington – precious few of whom, at a guess, have spent much time in South Boston – cheered at Margie’s self-actualizing lines and the ones that put Mike down. Of course they did, because Lindsay-Abaire wrote them in a way that allows audiences to pat themselves on the back for liking the obvious heroine and disliking the character he’s made damn sure we couldn’t possibly approve of. The second act’s a phony, and it strikes me that Lindsay-Abaire shows a weakness for working-class romanticizing that’s roughly at the same level as Mike’s. At the end Margie receives money from an unidentified source so she can pay her rent while she’s looking for a new job. She assumes it comes from Mike and is adamant about returning it. But it turns out to be from Stevie, who won at the local Bingo games and knows she can use the cash. Now that’s Southie pride, and Stevie, who doesn’t turn his back on his neighbors, is good people.

Jaime Carrillo, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, & Alejandro Simoes in The Motherfucker with the Hat (Photo: Craig Bailey)

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat – or The Motherf**ker with the Hat, as it is often called (either way it’s a terrific title), is an distinctly New York play. It’s a doodle, but clever and hilarious. All that happens in it is that Jackie (Jaime Carrillo), an ex-con who’s landed a job and trying to stay sober, finds evidence – a hat – that his girl friend Veronica (Evelyn Howe) has been cheating on him and goes a little crazy. It takes him the entire intermissionless play to find out that the culprit isn’t his (unseen) downstairs neighbor, whom he immediately suspected, but his best friend and AA sponsor Ralph D (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), who puts him up when he walks out on Veronica. The other characters are Victoria (Melinda Lopez), Ralph’s wife and partner in his health-beverages business, who used to work on Wall Street and date a gallery owner but fell for Ralph when she heard him speak at an AA meeting, and Jackie’s gregarious cousin Julio (Alejandro Simoes). (The running gag around Julio is that he reads as unmistakably gay but he keeps talking about his wife Marisol, who, like the neighbor, remains offstage.)

The play is a mixed-race scramble: Jackie and Veronica, who have been together since eighth grade, are Hispanic, and of course so is Cousin Julio, Ralph is African American, and Victoria is white. Guirgis mines the mix for comic-linguistic possibilities. The language is wonderful. I walked out on the cop movie End of Watch last week, not only because it was miserably directed but also because the dialogue sounded, as it often does in action thrillers, as if it had been written by the audience; at one point I got so bored that I counted all the fucks in a twelve-minute section and tallied up forty-three. That’s not realism; it’s poverty of imagination. Guirgis peppers his dialogue with obscenities, too, but he’s a talented writer: he knows how to set comic rhythms and employ the profanity as embroidery, eruptions, punch lines. 

I wish I’d seen the play on Broadway, where Bobby Cannavale played Jackie and Chris Rock was Ralph D. The Boston cast is adequate (except for Evelyn Howe, who screeches her lines) but only two of them, Lopez and Simoes, are exceptional. And the director, David R. Gammons, doesn’t trust Guirgis’s tone to carry the play; he keeps shifting it to serious, which doesn’t deepen it, as he must have thought it would, but instead makes it sentimental and banal.  (It also dims the effect of the final, touching moment.) Pity: we lose our trust in the production.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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