Monday, April 25, 2011

Good People

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People offers a compelling, if liberal, view of race, class, and gender relations in contemporary Boston. The Broadway production, directed with subtle clarity by Daniel Sullivan, boasts a top-notch cast, who bring to their roles a kind of fruitful empathy that still doesn’t shy away from delving into the complications of people whose lives might not be entirely blameless or completely praiseworthy. Good People’s essential question addresses in fact what makes a person “good,” and debates whether personal choice or social circumstance determines who can claim that moral and emotional category.

Lindsay-Abaire begins his story in the dollar store where Margaret (who’s called Margie and is played with fearless intelligence by Frances McDormand) is quickly fired by her boss, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), for her chronic lateness. The two argue by the dumpster outside the store’s back door, since even as manager, Stevie has no office in which to conduct the unpleasant, necessary business of letting go his employee. Their personal relationship complicates their exchange— Stevie’s mother was Margie’s childhood friend. But against her excuses and objections, Stevie explains that he’s caught in the maw of corporate practices, supervised himself by a district manager who checks the employee’s punch cards. If Stevie doesn’t fire Margie, he’ll be dismissed himself.

Margie begs Stevie to keep her on, offering to take a pay cut and accusing him of favoring the “Chinese” cashier who started after she did. She knows that corporate management willingly hires new, lower-paid employees over loyalty to workers who’ve been with the store long enough to qualify for benefits and pay increases.

But Margie’s inability to get to work on time is inescapable. She’s the single mother of a severely disabled adult daughter and her childcare options are spotty and unreliable. The daughter is never seen—in fact, a whole host of offstage characters populate Lindsay-Abaire’s play—but her presence is determining for Margie, who feels keenly her responsibility to her only child. When she loses her job, she’s thrown into dire economic straits that affect them both.

Margie lives in South Boston, or “Southie,” the Irish, working-class section of Boston. She’s a scrappy veteran of a hard scrabble neighborhood, someone who’s clear-sighted about her few prospects for class mobility. Her boyfriend—her daughter’s presumptive father—departed long ago, leaving her to fend for herself in a world populated by women. One of the pleasures of Good People and its performances, in fact, is the company of tough, determined, implicitly self-supporting women who provide Margie’s emotional support and foundation. Margie’s sympathetic friend, Jean (Becky Ann Baker), has known her forever; Margie’s landlady, Dottie (Estelle Parsons), is a salty woman who needs Margie’s rent to survive, but who pitches in to babysit for her daughter and clearly likes her renters’ company.

All three women and Stevie are played with broad accents that locate them in a specific milieu. The characters’ costumes (designed by David Zinn) are second-hand store eclectic. Parsons wears Dottie’s heavy aqua eye-shadow and her mismatched clothing with a rather bohemian pride. Margie’s apartment and the bingo hall the women and Stevie frequent are designed (by John Lee Beatty) to emphasize the shabby circumstances in which people without means are forced to create warm community.

Through a series of coincidences, Margie reconnects with Mike (Tate Donavan), one of her few childhood friends to leave the neighborhood and his birth class. Mike is now a doctor, who conducts research on endocrinology. In their awkward reunion in his office, where his white coat, starched shirt, and fancy tie establish his now upper-class bona fides, the two dance around the intimacies of their past, trying without much success to establish common cause in the present.

Margie, in fact, has sought Mike out hoping he’ll employee her. When he demurs, she takes umbrage, and assumes that he’s pushing her away rather than telling her the truth about openings on his staff. Of course, Margie’s skills don’t completely fit a doctor’s office needs, and even though she insists that she can file and do other clerical tasks, her protestations only extend the distance—professional and personal—between the two.

In a surge of guilt, generosity, or sentiment, Mike invites Margie to a party at his house in Chestnut Hill, an address to which he admits sheepishly, given how far it is socially and geographically from his old neighborhood. Although he expects Margie to decline, she boldly agrees to come, nearly taunting Mike with her insistence on reconnecting. When he later calls to tell her his child is sick and the party has been cancelled, Margie assumes he’s creating a ruse to keep her out of his new life. She takes a public bus and travels to Chestnut Hill anyway.

The second act’s confrontation between Mike and Margie, witnessed and complicated by the presence of Mike’s wife, Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), is a model of tightly written—if predictable—realist dramaturgy. The scene’s “reveal” is that Mike’s wife is African American, demonstrating another deviation from Mike’s origins, since South Boston has a history of white pride, if not racism. Lindsay-Abaire torques the race-class stereotypes in their relationship, since Kate is an upper-class, Georgetown bred lawyer, whose background couldn’t be more different from her husband’s. Mike’s determination to pass into her world and to erase his own working-class upbringing doesn’t always pan out. The scene opens on a discussion of the couple’s marital tensions and whether they should continue seeing a counselor.

Margie’s abrupt arrival underlines Mike and Kate’s differences even more starkly, as the strong wind of the past that blows into their Chestnut Hill house along with her unexpected visit further roils the surface of an already turbulent relationship. Kate tries to be generous with Mike’s friend, especially after Margie explains that she’s out of work and needs a job. Kate even suggests that Margie might babysit for their child, explaining that their current sitter is a neighborhood girl who doesn’t really need the money—after all, she drives a “Beemer.” (And, rather unfortunately, has an obviously Jewish surname.) The $15/hour the girl makes to watch their baby is far more than Margie collected at the dollar store. But even as Kate tries to be helpful, she only underlines the privilege in which she and Mike operate and her own ignorance about what it means to be poor.

[Spoiler alert.] Margie is torn about whether or not to make Mike responsible for her economic welfare and tests the waters by telling him that her daughter is actually his, the offspring of their brief affair one summer before he left. But when he reacts badly, she back-pedals, pretending she was just trying to manipulate him. Her presence in his home, though, will clearly have a lasting effect on his relationship with Kate. (One of the second act’s nuances is that Margie and Kate form a gender alliance over Mike’s recalcitrant maleness, despite the women’s stark class differences.)

Margie reminds Mike of the time he and some neighborhood boys went out of their way to beat up a black kid who’d intruded on their territory from the other side of town. Margie insists that if Mike’s father, who regularly watched for him out of the window of their home, hadn’t come to break it up, the boy might have been killed. Although she might not leave their moneyed Chestnut Hill living room with her financial future secured, Margie does succeed in reminding Mike and schooling Kate about his less than liberal past.

At the same time, the story she tells about the fight means multiple things. That Mike was racist suggests that he was a product of his childhood environment; that he subsequently married an African American women, though, indicates that people aren’t necessarily stuck where they begin. The three characters joke about whether you can take the “Southie” out of someone, even if you take them out of “Southie.” But Lindsay-Abaire finds that the truth in that debate is idiosyncratic, rather than general. Mike has escaped his past. He might try to white-wash who he was, but he’s changed. Margie, living her adult life in the same neighborhood with the same friends, is still the same.

Given Mike’s opportunities, though, Margie could be different. But she explains that desire isn’t enough to make escape possible. Mike accuses Margie of choosing badly. He blames her for being stuck in Southie and judges her for her inability to make of her own life the economic and professional success he’s made of his. But she reminds him that she didn’t have any choices. No one watched out the window for her; she was left to struggle on her own and wasn’t counseled about scholarships and routes out.

Margie also knows her fate isn’t about her abilities. She reminds Mike that she might be “ignorant” but she’s not “stupid.” Her world might be small but she’s not unintelligent. Her life is circumscribed by economic hardship; one of the character’s most striking speeches is Margie’s litany of where her money goes every month, a sad spiral of the proverbial robbing Peter to pay Paul. She lists the dentist, a towed car, babysitting money, unexpected expenses, and so on, illustrating the domino effect of poverty on non-existent finances.

Margie leaves Mike and Kate’s home on the ethical high ground. In the play’s final scene, Margie and her women friends sit with Stevie at the bingo hall, hoping to win as they make their crosses on their cards out of a desultory kind of habit. But Dottie tells Margie that her month’s rent has been paid, giving her a reprieve as she looks for work. Margie and the women debate whether Kate or Mike sent the money to Dottie, but Stevie finally admits that he paid Margie’s rent with the money he won at bingo. That the rich couple hasn’t reached out to Margie, whether or not her daughter is Mike’s, is their final bit of self-absorbed negligence.

Who, then, are the “good people” here, Lindsay-Abaire makes us wonder. Should Margie risk her daughter’s welfare by not asking her biological father for support? Did she do Mike a favor by abetting his escape from a neighborhood from which so few of their friends could find their way out? Should people who succeed look back and lend a hand to those less lucky? Or do people only take care of their own, repudiating their pasts when they leave?

Good People doesn’t answer any of these questions definitively, but leaves them in the air with enough ambiguity and ambivalence to make the play stick. The expository first act seems to wander, and contains what seems gratuitous racism about the cashier Margie insists is Chinese, though Stevie says she’s not, and some unnecessary gay-baiting over Stevie’s unmarried status. The second act helps the play’s beginning make sense, although I spent the intermission bemused and a bit irritated.

In the end, Lindsay-Abaire crafts a good, conventional realist play. McDormand is terrific as Margie, bringing the character both dignity and compassion (and the suggestion that in the end, she truly is good people), along with a sense of humor that carries much of the playwright’s wry class critique. Donovan provides a strong foil as Mike, unable to get out of his own way when he’s befuddled by his shame at the past Margie represents. Goldsberry brings nuance and agency to Kate, who could become a stick (or stock) figure, the upper-class African American who in less able hands might only serve as a plot device.

Likewise, that Margie’s daughter, who was born prematurely, is severely disabled—although we’re never told exactly how—seems contrived, too. That she cares single-handedly for a disabled child is supposed to make Margie that much more of a martyr. Rather than having a presence of her own, the daughter is only conceived to illustrate Margie’s character.

Parsons, Baker, and Carroll generate the weariness of those who struggle to make ends meet, alongside the decency of people who care about their community and their common survival. They truly are the good people.

In a discussion with the full cast and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s education director after the matinee performance I saw, the actors were articulate about their characters’ situations and the complexities of their gender, race, and class affiliations. McDormand described growing up working class, and how Lindsay-Abaire’s play touched her own experience of being someone who left her birth community and sometimes finds it awkward to return. Donovan told the audience how Lindsay-Abaire, who’s from South Boston, worked with the cast on their accents as well as their characters. While the moderator kept the conversation short, the cast clearly could have talked for much longer, so committed were they to the project of the play.

That, perhaps, is part of realism’s political potential—that by believing in characters as people who could, somewhere, be real, spectators have a chance to learn something they might not have known. And actors willing to open their hearts and their minds, and to bring dignity and intelligence to their work, become conduits for audiences willing to do the same. Not a bad thing at all.

The Feminist Spectator

Good People, Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway, April 9, 2011.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Precious Little

This very smart play presents a conundrum of ideas and feelings which, happily, it refuses to sort out in any complete or resolved way. Part of playwright Madeleine George's point is to suggest that even when we think we've got it all figured out, life becomes more ambiguous and ambivalent for reasons far out of our control. The protagonist here is Brodie (Kelly McAndrew), a lesbian linguist. After many years working in obscure language communities out in the field, she's achieved tenure at her university. The obvious next step for a woman of her generation and means is to have a baby. With characteristic deliberateness, she finds a suitable sperm donor and becomes pregnant.

One of the play's many pleasures is that Brodie is an independent woman completely capable of being on her own, who's decided to have a child because she wants to, not because she thinks she has to for her life to be meaningful or complete. The play opens with Brodie speaking with an obsequious, condescending young birth technology counselor (played by Theo Allyn, virtuosic in multiple roles), who tries to prepare her for the results of her upcoming amniocentesis.

Brodie is over 40, and knows that her age means that her pregnancy could go awry in myriad ways. But the jolt in her life's narrative comes when the test does indeed show a potential abnormality, and Brodie responds with uncharacteristic uncertainty about which path to choose. Should she abort the baby or carry it to term, gambling on the possibility that her daughter (she knows its sex because the inept counselor accidentally slips and tells her) will be, as she imagines, "broken"?

George isn't sanguine about a middle-age lesbian's life choices. But at the same time, she suggests that for strong, sure women who've spent their lives making good decisions, it's still possible to be surprised and unprepared when a curve ball comes flying at you. In fact, one of the play's many ruminations centers on the unpredictability of our lives, regardless how intelligent, controlled, and well-meant our plans.

Brodie is a linguistic anthropologist, whose interest in language doesn't necessarily guarantee that she's an excellent communicator. For each of the play's multiple characters, the ability to access language provides the key to a deeper level of feeling.

The play opens with a caged gorilla living with great equanimity behind her bars, speaking her inner thoughts in short, declarative sentences. Played with simple, suggestive physicality by Laurie Klatscher, the animal is fully present to her environment, noticing the angle and quantity of light has it floods her home and the smell of the air on her fur. The animal describes her own activities in the present tense, luxuriating in the pleasure of cataloguing her life as it happens.

A parade of visitors roam past what Brodie and her graduate student, Rhiannon (Allyn), call the animal's "enclosure" instead of its "cage," using politically correct language to mask the fact of the ape's captivity, just as we all use euphemisms to soften the sting of difficult realities.

Allyn also plays a collection of people called "the zoo goers," who stand outside the ape's cage looking in, their words and responses blurring into one another much the way the animal might hear them. As George writes their stream-of-consciousness impressions, it's evident that most people just want to consume their superficial experience of the animal, rather than really trying to connect with it meaningfully before they move on to the next exhibit. They barely notice her soulful presence before they're begging to see the giraffes.

Dragged to the zoo against her will because Rhiannon, her young graduate student lover, wants to do something other than have furtive sex in her office, Brodie does in fact connect with the ape. Although the animal supposedly has 30 or so words at her disposal, their appeal to one another is mostly mute. Brodie understands something of the animal's presentness, her ability to simply be in the moment in ways that Brodie's life precludes.

The animal becomes a kind of ego ideal, as Brodie comes to realize that she, too, will have to be staunchly in her life instead of second-guessing whatever choice she makes. As Dorothy (Klatscher), an older, wiser counselor at the birth clinic suggests as Brody debates her baby's fate, she'll make a decision and then she'll live in it, regardless of how her life changes.

One of Brodie's research informants is Cleva (Klatscher, poignant in the third of her multiple roles), a woman who speaks the dying Slavic language Brodie studies. When Cleva emigrated to the States, she adopted English to separate herself from a politically violent past. As she works with Brodie, who gives her words to record in the university's sound booth, Cleva reconnects to her history through her original tongue and seems to slip from the present, which irritates her emotionally parsimonious daughter no end.

For Cleva, language is a gift, even though it describes a traumatic past. For the ape, language allows her to describe and revel in her local environment, however compromised. Brodie's challenge is to figure out how to use language to capture a future she can't quite imagine. When, in the play's final moment, the ape grips Brodie in a fervent embrace, Brodie’s great relief seems to be the solace she derives from simply being in that moment without the necessity that it be resolved or vocalized.

The play is beautifully directed by Tracy Brigden, who moves the three actors around a simple, evocative set through vignettes of Brodie's emotional and philosophical quandary, accumulating anaffective nuance as the play goes forward. Each of the performers offer precise, carefully drawn portraits of the women whose lives intersect with Brodie's. McAndrew presents a straightforward, likable Brodie, whose existential debate proceeds along a steady trajectory.

Precious Little isn't interested in a voyeuristic study of the emotional angst of a difficult, life-altering decision, but instead, presents a character for whom deciding whether or not to continue a pregnancy provides an opportunity for useful growth. To see a woman academic onstage who's not punished for her intelligence by a fatal disease (see Wit and even the recent The How and the Why), and who isn't belittled or presented as somehow castrating, makes Precious Little a notable contribution to dramatic literature in which female professors are more routinely made to suffer for their competencies.

It's also refreshing to see a play in which a lesbian isn't eager to form a conventional domestic couple. Brodie enjoys Rhiannon, but when the younger woman's opinion about Brodie's pregnancy sounds too glib and thoughtless, Brodie doesn't hesitate to end the relationship.

At the same time, Rhiannon is clear about the pitfalls of sleeping with a professor, anticipating the day when Brodie will not so subtly pass her off to a colleague and withdraw her support. Separating the personal from the professional, George suggests, is impossible, since women who've achieved the success Brodie boasts often find their emotional support and sexual pleasure among those with whom they connect intellectually.

Brigden and the actors capture this dynamic nicely. It's clear that although she's guarded about their relationship, Rhiannon has real affection for her professor, while Brodie is just a bit too distracted to really notice the young woman's attentions. We're not invited to witness the formation of a couple, but to observe how even the most intimate relationships develop through a series of hits and misses, through sentences that sometimes don't really finish the thought they mean to convey. When Brodie breaks off their affair, she says vaguely that "this isn't working out." Rhiannon knowingly retorts that it'd be kinder, in the long run, for Brodie to say exactly what she means.

But in Precious Little, even the most precise language can't quite convey anything with real certainty because in the end, life's just not that simple. Living in it, with all its immutable contradictions and confusions, with magnanimity and generosity, might be the best we can do.

The Feminist Spectator

Precious Little, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, April 3, 2011.