"Sure glad we're not poor"
"Sure glad we're not poor" Credit: Michael Brosilow

The last half hour of David Lindsay-Abaire’s new drama, Good People, suggests that he may yet become a great playwright. I know, I know, Lindsay-Abaire won the 2007 Pulitzer for Rabbit Hole, so he’s already got the American theater’s most prestigious indicator of greatness. But that Pulitzer came as the result of a kind of backroom maneuver: deadlocked on the three nominated finalists, the drama committee voted to consider a play that hadn’t made the cut, and that play was Rabbit Hole. More to the point, Rabbit Hole is dreadful—two long acts of people processing their precious feelings, all to demonstrate that when your four-year-old is killed in a freak accident it’s really hard to get your life back to normal. It’s more a staged position paper than a drama.

But at least the playwright made an effort to write something that might matter. His earlier scripts—typified by inexplicable successes like Kimberly Akimbo and Fuddy Meers—are cloying, unrelentingly quirky attempts at darkish comedy whose circular, semiclever shenanigans always prevent things from getting too serious. Or too coherent, for that matter. So perhaps I should thank the Pulitzer board for nudging Lindsay-Abaire in the right direction.

And now that he’s got the book for Shrek the Musical out of his system, Lindsay-Abaire is getting all Rabbit Hole-serious again with Good People. The play, which premiered in New York last year, shares the naturalistic style of its illustrious predecessor—and its dramatic inertness, too, for much of the first act and a half.

Good People focuses on Margie, a scrappy, middle-aged single mother who’s lived all her life in Irish, working-class South Boston. We first meet her in the alley behind a Dollar Store, where her manager, Stevie—the grown son of Margie’s childhood friend—is firing her from her cashier job. She’s late too often, he explains. It’s not her fault, she argues; she’s got a developmentally disabled adult daughter, and the babysitter doesn’t show up on time. Backed into a corner, Margie says she’ll take a pay cut. She’ll even accept less than the new “Chinese girl” gets. Stevie won’t relent. It’s a taut, nuanced, emotionally complex five-minute scene that sets Steppenwolf Theatre’s fleet, carefully observed production promisingly in motion.

But then the staged-position-paper doldrums settle in. Lindsay-Abaire’s thesis is that it’s hard to catch a break in a shitty economy when you’re an unemployed high school dropout saddled with a special-needs daughter and no family support system. He therefore has Margie hang out in the kitchen with her two girlfriends, Dottie and Jean, where they talk a lot about how hard it is to find a job. Then Margie pays a surprise visit to Mike, the boyfriend she hasn’t seen in 30 years, who made it out of “Southie” to become a successful physician. She asks him for a job; a conversation full of awkwardness and mutual condescension ensues (she looks down on him for turning his back on the old neighborhood, he looks down on her not working her way out). Then Margie and the girls play bingo and talk a lot more about how hard it is to find a job.

By the time intermission hits, you’re wondering whether Lindsay-Abaire plans to do anything more than hit his talking points and toss in the occasional bit of comic relief. Margie may be facing a dire predicament, but he can’t seem to make her situation dramatically urgent. Jean and Dottie have no stake in the action, and the meeting between Margie and Mike—the only scene that advances the plot—seems largely inconsequential. Who cares if someone she hasn’t seen in three decades treats her poorly? Most disappointing, Lindsay-Abaire does nothing to dramatize the larger social and economic forces that are complicating Margie’s efforts to get back on her feet. It’s hard to find work in South Boston because, well—it just is.

Director K. Todd Freeman and his first-rate cast can’t make the first act matter, but they do make it convincing, aided by Walt Spangler’s hyperrealistic modular set. The actors find all the grit and spit in Southie without the condescension that often comes with playing poor. As Margie, Mariann Mayberry delivers an impeccably understated performance that subtly emphasizes her character’s lifelong status as a nobody.

In the second act, Margie shows up at the opulent home Mike shares with his African-American wife and their little daughter. True to form, Lindsay-Abaire allows things to dawdle for quite a while before Margie and Mike admit they share a complicated past. As their ruthless inner selves begin to emerge, it becomes clear that this one strained living room chat could ruin three lives. And the more Lindsay-Abaire reveals about Margie and Mike’s past, the more clearly he illuminates the insidious ways in which poverty leaves people vulnerable to the forces of chaos, effectively eliminating the choices that might offer escape. It’s a bracing, poignant, dazzling finale. What a shame that Lindsay-Abaire wastes so much time getting there.