Pittsburgh Public Theater offers another lightweight play, Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. A shallow set-up dominates the first act and you have to wait until the second act for substance. There, genuine character development, significant by-play and, in this production, two solid performances give you something worth your attention. One of Pittsburgh’s best directors, Tracy Brigden, doesn’t seem to have found ways to make it work better.
Lindsay-Abaire has gained a major reputation for imagination about and perception of emotional ups and downs among families, most notably in his Pulitzer Prize winner The Rabbit Hole superbly performed at the Public in 2008. This 2011 play also touches on domestic malfunction. But principally it most looks like a fulfilling a desire to write about his old neighborhood and the people in it, in this case South Boston, aka “Southie.” His dialogue contains a lot about local legends, traditions, and practices, delivered in regional accents decorated by other presumed color. Most of it seems ordinary to me, though, not particularly special or amusing given the first act reliance on trivial gab, often watching people sitting, not a dynamic choice.
Later, revelations emerge about the three principal characters, making for dramatic confrontations, lively dialogue and a few nuggets of thought to ponder, although most of this comes across as more personal than universal.
Lower middle-class Margie has trouble keeping menial jobs. When she loses her latest, she learns that a teenage boyfriend, Michael, (“Mike” ) has triumphed over Southie origins and become a successful doctor living in an upscale Boston neighborhood. She tries to get him to help her find work, eventually inserting herself into his home when only his wife, Kate, is there with him. The couple has been discussing their continuing need for counseling. When Margie arrives Michael is seriously uncomfortable. Kate is friendly and wants to know more about her husband’s past, possibly as a tough kid. The subject of racism enters the room. So does the long-ago relationship between Mike and Margie.
Margie mostly seems tough and pushy, with a compulsion to talk too much and say too many unfunny, wrong things. Yet dialogue sometimes describes her as a good person. That contrasting quality remains hard to see, given visiting actor Kelly McAndrew’s performance. No soft interior shows. She and director Brigden never make the woman as sympathetic as she could be. In the good people category, Michael at first seems sincere and reasonable, David Whalen making the most of that. Later, when Michael’s other sides come out, Whalen remains completely convincing, making the role a thorough portrait. His reactions too always add to the impression of a totally alive and aware person. Meanwhile January LaVoy, also from out of town, gives warm and solid dimension to Kate.
There are only three other characters in this two-act, two- set play, possibly conceived in ways to not stretch producers’ budgets. It needs more of something but could also stand trimming, especially when people talk too long about minor issues. And these three neighborhood types seem penciled in to fill space around the more colorful center of the story. But this is what the cast and director have been given and they do what they can and do it well. Lindsay-Abaire has done better before.
Good People continues through December 9th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316-1600 or ppt.org