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Good People

Frances McDormand delivers a Tony-worthy performance as a working-class mother desperate for a job in David Lindsay Abaire's comedy-laced drama.

Tate Donovan and Frances McDormand
in Good People
(© Joan Marcus)
Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire's new comedy-laced drama, Good People, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, contains such belief in the goodness that thrives within otherwise afflicted hearts that it defies onlookers to leave without feeling deeply satisfied.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that under the stalwart direction of Daniel Sullivan, cast members Frances McDormand -- making a healthy Tony Award bid -- Tate Donovan, Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Estelle Parsons are totally persuasive from the play's volatile start to gratifying finish.

It's true, as well, that the work is marred along its determined path by awkward construction, excessive exposition, and confusing information. Here, Lindsay-Abaire -- who likes nothing more than to radically shift gears from one play to the next -- fixes his sights on working-class South Boston native Margaret (McDormand), mother to now-grown, birth-defect-challenged Joyce. After being fired by family friend Steve (Carroll) from her job at the local Dollar Store, Margaret spends the rest of the two-act piece desperately trying to finagle work, often in embarrassingly irritating ways and usually egged on by plain-spoken, Bingo-playing pal Jean (Baker) and annoyingly caustic landlady Dottie (Parsons).

Most notably, Margaret tries landing a job from ex-boyfriend Mike Dillon (Donovan), who pulled himself out of "Southie" and is now a respected local doctor. After she barges into his office -- having not seen him for 30 years -- he reluctantly invites her to his birthday party -- which he then cancels. Nonetheless, a deeply suspicious Margaret unexpectedly appears at Mike's gracious suburban home on the night of the party. (The ingenious sets, including a Bingo-hall corner, are by the ever-ingenious John Lee Beatty.) There, she finds Mike and his much younger, African-American wife Kate (Goldsberry) are dealing with both a sick daughter and their own rocky union -- and proceeds to make an already uncomfortable situation even moreso.

When early in the proceedings Jean tells Margaret she's bumped into Mike, she replies that she's always considered him "good people." But is he? As the plot unfolds, we discover that he might be Joyce's father -- even though Margaret let him off the hook when she ended their two-month summer romance as he was heading off to the Ivy League and later claimed Joyce was fathered by another man and born prematurely. The question also lingers if Margaret is truly good, despite the turmoil she compulsively foments in Mike's office and even more so at Mike's home (where her response to the couple's penchant for the finer things in life is grist for humor).

What becomes clear is that Lindsay-Abaire is intrigued by goodness not as an absolutely unadulterated trait but more as a dominant strand in an individual's complex psychological make-up. Equally important, the playwright is undeniably interested in how goodness is played out by the constantly at-odds social classes.

While the entire cast is splendid, McDormand -- who is on stage for practically every moment of the two-hour show -- is so breath-to-breath convincing portraying a blue-collar worker battling a world denying her comforting choices that she makes the character and the play consistently irresistible. She's more than good people; she's a great actress at the top of her game!