When the well-heeled fertility doctor describes his life as comfortable in David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, his have-not former girlfriend from the same rough-and-tough neighbourhood of south Boston replies: "I guess that makes me uncomfortable."
The audience, attending the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season-ender Thursday, soon feels that discomfort with Lindsay-Abaire's penetrating look at the cultural disconnect between the working poor and America's one-percenters. Margie and Mike share the same blue-collar Irish background in Southie, yet he escaped to find affluence while she stayed rooted where she began. Is that the result of hard work, smart choices or dumb luck? What if some unfortunates don't have any bootstraps to pull themselves up with?
Lindsay-Abaire, a Southie who might be best known for writing the book and lyrics for Shrek, the Musical, exposes the cruel contrasts in their lives as he investigates America's social divide. Class perceptions, stereotypes and rifts permeate the laugh-filled two-hour production (plus intermission). The humour is not jokey, but painfully funny in the way real life is.
Good People, tautly directed by Vikki Anderson, is a deceptively smart, insightful play that wraps around whomever is playing the scrappy Margie. Former Winnipegger Martha Burns gives us a downtrodden underdog to root for even when the single mom behaves badly. Her accomplished, ego-free performance allows the audience to glimpse the sadness and resignation under Margie's tough exterior.
In the opening scene the luckless Margie gets fired from her dollar store cashier job because her child-care problems — she has an unseen disabled adult daughter — make her chronically late for work. Despite pleading for one more chance from her callow boss Stevie, she is left in the back alley with all the other discards piled in the garbage bin and trash cans.
Consoling her over coffee are bingo buddies Jean, known as the Mouthie from Southie for how she shoots straight from the lip, and the aptly-named Dottie, Margie's mercenary landlady who is hinting at eviction. Jean has just run into Mike, now a big-shot doctor, and suggests the 50-ish Margie hit him up for a job. Realizing that she is almost unemployable, she agrees to reach out to him because he was always good people.
The rough-edged Margie tracks him down to his swank office where the two, who have not seen each other for 30 years, reacquaint with an understandable awkwardness. It's the first half of their spirited joust, what she calls harmless ball-busting, between the former lovers. Jeans and sneakers Margie swallows her Southie pride and begs for a job, even as his janitor. He can't help her, but is guilted into inviting her to his birthday party at his home in the Boston enclave of Chestnut Hill.
The entire first act is a prolonged set up for the more rousing and meaty second. Designer Patrick Clark uses effective sliding sets on the front of the stage to hasten scene changes and keep the pace crisp. Only after intermission does the stage open up to reveal Mike's expansive and elegant living room. Despite receiving a phone call from Mike that the party has been cancelled because his young daughter is sick, a disbelieving Margie crashes his place anyway. This blast from the past blows up his delicate domestic calm.
Margie is immediately mistaken by Mike's young Afro-American wife, Kate, for a delivery person, the first but not the last time one of the trio will find their perceptions of each other inaccurate. Margie agrees to stay for a glass of wine, but quickly realizes she is socially in over her head. Mike even must translate for her what's on the cheese plate. All the Southie people in Good People know each other's secrets, which is certainly handy when one of their own tries to put on airs. Some of Mike's are spilled by blabber-mouth Margie that turns up the tension palpably between the hosts.
Mike and Margie argue over what determined their future. The latter's life turned on one event that makes her believe she is a good person, but Kate launches a passionate rebuke in one of the play's best moments. In the same vein as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, no one escapes the evening unscathed.
Ari Cohen's Mike earns sympathy for how his character's worlds collide and his no-win predicament struggle of having to deny and defend his roots. With her hair teased into a bleach-blonde helmet, Patricia Hunter is a scene-stealer as Dottie, who together with Tracey Nepinak's Jean, surround Margie with a convincing mix of abrasiveness and camaraderie. Eric Blais injects his Stevie with quiet dignity that makes him worthy of the title description. Audrey Dwyer rounds out the all-Winnipeg cast as Kate, played with appealing upper-class gentility.
Good people? Perhaps. Good play? Absolutely.