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Good Thing

Alicia Goranson and Cara Buono
in Good Thing
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It is rarely noted that when dramatists follow the standard advice to write about what they know, they run the risk of writing about what the rest of us also know. In putting together plays about tribulations faced by young drug addicts, Jessica Goldberg seems to be basing her work on experiences with which she's unfortunately familiar. If she hasn't survived them herself, she almost surely has witnessed them from an uncomfortably close remove. When the doped-up characters in her last play, The Hologram Theory and her current play, Good Thing, speak, their "oh-shit-you-know-we-are-the-heart-and-soul-of-America" outbursts sound authentic.

The problem is that we've seen these volatile, food-throwing types too many times before in the proliferation of pieces for which Sam Shepard forged the template with, among other plays, Buried Child. Kenneth Lonergan trenchantly followed the pattern with This is Our Youth, but almost anything that Rebecca Gilman, say, or Goldberg have concocted recently could have carried Lonergan's all-encompassing title. The same or similar examples of our youth are rounded up for scrutiny in all of these works. (Curiously, both Gilman's recent Glory of Living and the new Goldberg entry feature young women whose sluttish mothers raucously have it off on the other side of the bedroom wall with men they've picked up.)

In continuing to examine this segment of the population, Goldberg is having to push the boundaries of credible storylines. In Good Thing, the relatively strait-laced Dean (Hamish Linklater), a fellow whose SAT score was a commendable 1370, has thrown away his chances for further education in order to marry the pregnant crack addict Mary (Cara Buono). The burdened Dean also serves as keeper for his demented brother, Bobby (Chris Messina). The lives of these three hypertense twentysomethings overlap with those of the embittered and embattled Nancy and John Roy (Betsy Aidem and John Rothman), a pair of childless guidance counselors: It was Mr. Roy who advised Dean and Mary about life after high school (for whatever good it did) and who also made quite an impression on Liz (Alicia Goranson), who drops out of pre-med studies to take a hometown job selling running shoes. Liz then plots to bring the Roys back in touch with Dean and Mary by way of a ludicrous and ultimately unexecuted scheme to give them the newborn; she imagines this as the way to free Dean from Mary and reclaim him for herself.

Good Thing is that second-half-of-the-20th-century staple, a kitchen sink drama. Well, no, that isn't exactly right: It's actually a two-kitchen-sinks drama, because most of two kitchens comprise Neil Patel's realistic set. In the stage right kitchen, the Roys natter about his wobbly recovery from alcoholism and a recent infidelity; in the stage-left kitchen, Dean, Bobby and Mary occasionally pull a beer from their sparsely stocked refrigerator and squabble about how drugs will affect the expected baby's future. During Goldberg's first act, most of the suspense revolves around how long it will take before Mary, whom Bobby is supposed to keep locked up while Dean is out of the house, gets some crack into her system. In the rushed second act, the question raised is whether Liz will succeed in persuading Dean and Mary to surrender baby Pollyanna to the Roys, who are divided on the prospect. He, using common sense, is against it; she, incredibly forsaking all reason, thinks the idea is a good one.

Chris Messina and Cara Buono
in Good Thing
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The issue Goldberg seems eager to grapple with here is parenthood. What she appears to be commenting on by juxtaposing the infertile Roys with the fecund Dean and Mary is the irony of who gets to have children. The implication is that, despite the Roys' problems, there's no doubt that they would make the better mother and father; the frustrated Dean and Mary, who can't get her mind off a next fix, certainly don't look like the best candidates for securing Pollyanna's welfare. But parenthood isn't quite so cut-and-dried, and the Roys' superiority is relative; it is hardly gauranteed that their union would be stabilized by a child. Clearly, they're still struggling to get past John's extra-marital episode, and whether or not his fight with alcohol is over is also up in the air. On the other hand, Dean seems the kind of determined young man who might prove to be a good father. Maybe Goldberg's point is that neither of these couples are promising parents. Yes, the poor parenting so common today is a crying shame; but if that's what Goldberg means to say, she hasn't found the characters through whom to say it, not when all of them are so relentlessly annoying.

What can be said about this-is-yet-more-of-our-youth plays is that they almost always provide material for actors and directors to sink their teeth into. At the helm of Good Thing, Jo Bonney has ably taken up the challenge and put a cooperative cast through some highly kinetic paces. The one who gets to bounce off the walls the hardest is the short and rail-thin Chris Messina. As the wired Bobby, a fellow who continuously babbles on about how clear his thoughts are when he's high, Messina is mesmerizing to a fault; he may not mean to, but he sure holds focus, whether it should be on him or not. As Mary, Cara Buono also rivets attention as she goes into a stupor and slides down the furniture or carries on an interior debate about her mothering potential. As the manipulative Liz, Alicia Goranson, who only weeks ago was doing whatever she could to raise the medium level of the playlets in An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, is just as grittily surprising here. Rothman and Linklater are fine as two men who hoped to be happier in their marriages. With Nancy Roy, Betsy Aidem adds to the list of contemporary women she's played in the past couple of years. This actress never makes a false move and deserves to be cherished for it.

The always-reliable Neil Patel designed the set for this play about a baby. It was he who came up with the kitchen for Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends. Evidently, one good kitchen deserves another.

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