Review: “Good People”

Joe Kellen

"Good People" is about status.

Okay, Joe. Name a play that isn’t about status. Give us one piece of theater that doesn’t consider different characters in opposing positions of power. There always has to be something for ‘em to strive for on stage. Who cares about some dude yelling “STELLA!” if nothing’s at stake?

No one. This was the issue that kept creeping up as I watched “Good People.” There were clear roles of status defined on stage, each relationship was unique in its rhythm — but the stakes felt strangely low until the second act. Why was this?

First of all, let’s talk about production. It was, in a word, fantastic. Joel Sass worked the flow of the piece like a DJ, sets seamlessly moving in and out of each other, carrying the pace of the piece like a smooth four-on-the-floor beat. I would almost describe the way we jump cut to the different sections of the ensemble’s world as cinematic. As we’ve come to expect from this director, there are some wonderful images to behold in this play. Gritty brick alleyways, the faded walls of a modest apartment, an ornamented Chestnut Hill living room — the physical space benefitted from having Sass fill his usual dual-role as set designer and director.

The performances were just as vibrant. Virginia Burke carried the show with her portrayal of Margie Walsh, blending the brassy attitude of Southie with carefully placed moments of vulnerability. While Walsh is the opposite of demure, there were moments when Burke would embrace a quiet intensity, teasing at the frustration and love that the character was, for the most part, forced to hold in. The entire group of actors fed off of this quality, and it was clear they believed in the words they were saying up there. All in all, this rarer-than-it-ought-to-be type of energy was what kept me engaged throughout the piece.

After coming to these conclusions about the actors, the design, and the overall flow of the performance, I was confused. This had all the components of a great show, so why wasn’t I more enthralled? It had to be coming from somewhere, so I looked back to the play itself. What were we seeing on stage? Where did that whole playing part come in?

This is when I realized that “Good People” is only about status. It doesn’t show us much of anything. The characters sit around and talk about status, they live in different roles in the hierarchy of their world, but there are no visible, direct consequences that the audience sees until deep in the second act. Lindsay-Abaire writes a landlord character that might potentially threaten Margie’s living situation, but we never see that threat come close to being fulfilled. He writes in a plethora of things that Margie loves: her daughter, her friends, her worldview — but we never see any of these things put at risk. He even puts Margie out of work in the first scene of the play, but there never seems to be anything at stake in the current moment for her. It’s all about what’s happening next month or next year. While this tactic of the uncertain future can be interesting, it has no theatricality to it. The only time we really see characters being actively challenged by circumstance is after the first act has already expired, which could be too late for some audience members.

Sure, Lindsay-Abaire’s writing has an undeniable humanity to it. His characters are complex, have desires and avoid manufactured speech that sometimes plagues contemporary theater. But if you’re going to put something on stage, it better be alive. The text may be good, hell, it may even be great, but we’ve come here to see action, not hear it discussed.

At the end of the day, Park Square’s production was solid. The themes rang true and they worked like dogs up there. Though I can’t help but wonder what the show may have been had it kicked into high gear about forty five minutes sooner.