Good People is very good theater at Curious

David Lindsay Abaire, who first achieved fame with such surreal and fantastical comedies as Kimberly Akimbo, about a young girl with a disease that causes rapid and premature aging, and Fuddy Meers, in which a woman wakes up day after day remembering neither who she is nor what recently happened, has been writing in a less comic and more realistic vein lately. A few years back, Curious Theatre Company staged his Rabbit Hole, which deals with one of the saddest and deepest griefs imaginable: the death of a child. In Good People, Lindsay Abaire returns to the milieu of his own childhood. He grew up in Southie, a tough working-class neighborhood of South Boston, and the play explores the culture of the place — in all its spite, solidarity and ambiguous pride.

In the first scene, we see Margie (pronounced by all around her as Margi) getting fired from her job at a dimestore. Stevie, who's doing the firing, is acutely uncomfortable. She's known him since he was a boy; she was on familiar terms with his mother. In an attempt to win his sympathy, she repeats a jokey old story about his mother that's apparently been making the rounds in this part of the world for years. He remains unmoved. Yes, she acknowledges, she does come to work late every day, but there's a reason: Her grown but dysfunctional daughter needs continual monitoring, and the arrangements she's able to make are barely holding together. To further her case, she uses every imaginable tactic: begging, bullying, nostalgia, neighborhood solidarity. She offers to take a painful pay cut. But it's pretty clear she knows all along she won't win. Perhaps she enjoys needling Stevie, but he can't relent. His job is as much on the line as hers is.

When Margie's with her friends Dottie and Jean, we see a different side of her. The three share a bickering, hard-nosed, situational warmth. They understand each other; they've all been hard-used; each would be quick to stick a knife in one of the others if her own self-interest required it. Margie is just a shade kinder and more thoughtful than the other two. She's in desperate need of a job and, at their urging, she decides to reconnect with an old boyfriend, a summer fling who has escaped Southie and is now a fertility doctor, living in upper-class Chestnut Hill with his elegant African-American wife.

Margie's encounters with Mike in some ways parallel her interaction with Stevie, but they go much deeper. Mike is appalled by Margie's intrusion into his life, her clumsy and habitual racism, her pushy and transparent neediness. But now and then memories of their shared past intrude and they share moments of warm reminiscence. And Mike is still stung when she taunts him with betraying their roots and becoming "lace-curtain Irish."

Nobody here is particularly nice; almost everyone is a study in passive aggression. Mike's smoothly gracious wife, Kate, is kind to Margie in exactly the same self-conscious and slightly condescending way some white people are toward black people: "I actually love Cracker Barrel," she confides over a tray of fancy cheeses. She encourages Margie's attacks on her husband, since they'll be useful in the ongoing arguments that roil their marriage. And Margie, apparently oblivious to the effect this will have on her plea for help from Mike, provides useful ammunition.

You do feel for Margie, but only intermittently. It's impossible to watch Good People without remembering the state of the U.S. economy and how precarious life is for working people; we all have acquaintances and family members searching for work, in danger of losing their homes, struggling with medical bills. The difficulty of finding child care — or adult care — has cost many women their jobs, as it does Margie. Still, watching her clumsy, spiteful tactics, you can't help feeling she really did bring much of her misfortune on herself. Mike's response to her desperate need is no more admirable.

As Margie, Dee Covington never seems truly working-class, in terms of either toughness or need; her performance feels a little ungrounded. Betty Hart is all smooth sophistication as Kate. You empathize with Michael McNeill's Mike right up until the moment you wish you hadn't. John Jurcheck is terrific as beleaguered Stevie, and on Kathryn Gray and Leslie O'Carroll, the roles of Margie's friends fit as comfortably as old slippers.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman