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Stage Review

There’s a lot to like in these ‘Good People’

Lindsay-Abaire creates another compelling drama

Frances McDormand and Tate Donovan star as Margie and Mike in “Good People.’’ Frances McDormand and Tate Donovan star as Margie and Mike in “Good People.’’ (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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NEW YORK — With regard to dramas set in South Boston, the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in at some point.

But not yet. Not when Southie can inspire a play like David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,’’ which maps the fault lines of social class with a rare acuity of perception while also packing a substantial emotional wallop.

“Good People,’’ which opened last night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by Daniel Sullivan, is studded with references to the clam rolls at Sully’s, Whitey Bulger, and the Sugar Bowl. But the playwright, a South Boston native whose “Rabbit Hole’’ won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama (and was adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman), is after something much deeper than the splashes of local color that enlivened the likes of “Good Will Hunting’’ and “The Departed.’’

Word by well-chosen word, Lindsay-Abaire weighs the cost of identities discarded and constructed, of upward mobility with all its complications and contradictions, of memory when it turns selective and self-serving, of sacrifices made but unacknowledged, of choices that are not choices at all.

Yet for all of the playwright’s sizable skill, it is Frances McDormand who gives “Good People’’ its vital, beating heart.

McDormand, best-known for her Oscar-winning turn in “Fargo,’’ delivers a wrenching performance as Margaret Walsh, nicknamed Margie, a newly unemployed single mother whose lifetime of disappointment and struggle is written on her careworn countenance.

Margie’s economic plight propels her into a confrontation with Mike (Tate Donovan), an ex-boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for three decades, since he went off to college, became a doctor, and left Southie far behind.

Or so he thinks. Then Margie shows up at his office looking for a job and spoiling for a fight. They inhabit different worlds: Mike, who grew up in the Old Harbor projects, is now a reproductive endocrinologist and living in Chestnut Hill. Margie still lives in the old neighborhood and has just been fired from a Dollar Store.

Margie’s supervisor, Stevie (Patrick Carroll), was ordered by higher-ups to can her because she was late once too often for work — a circumstance brought about by the pressures of caring for her grown daughter, who suffers from severe mental retardation. Unable to make next month’s rent, Margie now faces the possible loss of her apartment, a fact made abundantly clear by Dottie, her landlady, who is played by Estelle Parsons in full over-the-top “Roseanne’’ mode.

In the exchanges between Margie and Mike, Lindsay-Abaire shows a keen ear for the way Bostonians talk; he knows that we alternate between circumlocution and bluntness as we say whatever we have to say. Mike bridles when Margie flatly tells him: “You’re all lace-curtain Irish now . . . You’re not Southie at all.’’ (Donovan, alas, undercuts that notion and his generally fine performance by overdoing his Boston accent throughout “Good People.’’).

Later in the week, Margie steps up her challenge to Mike’s authenticity by showing up at his house in Chestnut Hill, where he lives with Kate, his much younger, African-American wife (the luminous Renée Elise Goldsberry) and their young daughter.

Marital tension buzzes between Kate and Mike, which may explain why, even as he tries to shoo Margie away, the wife demands that she stay, settle in, and regale her with tales of her husband’s boyhood. The ensuing trip down memory lane proves to be an eye-opening one for Kate and a perilous one for Mike. While steering clear of South Boston, he has exploited his connection to the neighborhood by romanticizing his ascent from his origins as a “kid from the projects.’’ But there are certain details of that past he has not shared with his wife.

Even when McDormand is simply watching others talk, though, our eyes are drawn to her face, with its shifting reflections of resentment, regret, fear, hope, compassion, anger, and sadness. There is nothing quiet about Margie’s desperation. In one scene that brilliantly anatomizes the uphill struggle of poverty, she tells Mike how her car was repossessed because she missed a payment. Margie missed that payment because she had to pay a dentist’s bill instead. That bill arose because she tried to save money by eating candy brittle for dinner one night and cracked a tooth. Because she had no insurance, she ignored the cracked tooth for six months until an abscess formed.

In other words, when you’re scuffling on the margins, as so many Americans are today, one bad break often cascades into another, and then another — a fact worth noting as some in Washington seek to unravel the social safety net.

The title of this consistently engrossing play is drawn from Margie’s description of the Mike she knew in girlhood — “He was always good people’’ — but Lindsay-Abaire understands that when it comes to measuring true goodness, every human being is a wild card: They can flat-out surprise you sometimes.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

GOOD PEOPLE

Play by David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Sets, John Lee Beatty. Lights, Pat Collins. Costumes, David Zinn. Sound, Jill BC Du Boff.

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York. Through May 8. Tickets $57-$121, 212-239-6200, www.telecharge.com