Editor's Note: SPOILER ALERT — some of the twists and turns of the play are revealed in this review, so stop reading if you like surprises.
"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" asks Glinda, a very good witch. "Why, I'm not a witch at all," answers the girl recently arrived by tornado. "I'm Dorothy Gale from Kansas." Dorothy never answers Glinda's question. Of course, there's no doubt that she's very good indeed. But I wonder what Margie from Southie (i.e., south Boston's lower end) would answer.
As played by Elizabeth Bunch in the Alley Theatre's thoroughly entertaining production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony-nominated Good People (2011), she's a little of both. At times it seems she's a lot of bad. The good is buried under a hard shell, calcified through circumstances, economic woe and partially due to her own bad decisions. She is stuck in south Boston and will probably never see Oz, although she comes as close as she can imagine it when she crashes a party in chic Chestnut Hill in Act II.
Through June 29. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700, alleytheatre.org.
She's desperate for a job, anything will do, having just been fired by manager friend Stevie (Dylan Godwin) from her cashier's position at the Dollar Store. She has a record of chronic lateness, and Stevie's own meager job is on the line if he keeps her any longer. It's not her fault, she pleads. The babysitter was late again. Adult daughter Joyce with her special needs requires 24/7 attention. Margie (pronounced with a hard "g") does the best she can. When this tactic doesn't sway Stevie, Margie turns up the heat, insinuating with neighborhood gossip or wheedling with forced kindness. A master manipulator, she knows just the right moment to lay on a guilt trip. She's one tough cookie. But this time her tactics misfire. She's out of a job.
There's comfort of sorts at home, where crusty former high school pal Jean (Melissa Pritchett, blowsy and deliciously low-rent) and foul-mouthed landlady Dottie (Jennifer Harmon, as juicy and pungent as her memorable Violet in the Alley's August: Osage County) are a kind of extended family. None of the three gals censor their thoughts, saying whatever's on their mind at the moment. It's here in the ratty kitchen that Jean plants the idea for Margie's next move. She has run into Mike (Chris Hutchison), a former Southie who's made it big as a doctor. He once had a brief fling with Margie in high school. Ask him for a job, Jean states with brittle assurance. "He's good people."
Good, bad, nice, mean, class, no class — they're all mixed up in Lindsay-Abaire's social dissection. Mike might be decent and successful, but has he really forgotten his roots, his old neighborhood buddies? "I'm comfortable," he uneasily responds to Margie's prying when she goes to his office to ask for a job. "I'm uncomfortable," she parries, getting under his skin. She gropes even deeper when she tells him he's "lace-curtain Irish," apparently the worst slur one can hurl at a Southie. She picks up a family picture and slyly comments that his beautiful wife is younger than her daughter Joyce. There's tension in that doctor's office. I smell smoke. Something happened that summer, although nothing is explicitly said. In an intriguing battle of wills, Margie's passive-aggressive assault wears Mike down, and Hutchison, using that velvet rasp of a voice and shrewd physical movement, shows us his eventual acquiescence. Margie gets invited to the Saturday birthday party. Plenty of rich people there. One of them has got to have a job for her. She needs the rent money.
Could Mike be Joyce's father? We've thought so before, but Jean, the "mouthie from Southie," convinces Margie to pull a Maury Povich on him. So what if it's probably not true. Use what you've got. Choices aren't always good, or nice.
The rich have problems, too. Although she mistakes Margie for the caterer, Mike's African-American wife, Kate (Krystel Lucas, making a lovely Alley debut, and we hope to see her again), seethes underneath a calm, radiant exterior. Their marriage is in trouble. The party had been canceled, but Margie didn't believe Mike when he told her, thinking he was blowing her off. So it's only the three of them and an immense cheese tray. Squirming and uncomfortable, Mike wants Margie out of there, but Kate wants Margie to tell stories of Mike's days in Southie. Memories of slumming go awry, naturally, and their long-ago summer affair rips open old wounds. Privilege, luck, hard work — these trump choices. But Margie's emotional blackmail trumps everything.
There's a slight rainbow near the end of the play. Stevie gives his bingo winnings to Margie so she can pay the rent and not be turned out by Dottie, and maybe, just maybe, there's a job at Southie's big company, Gillette. We leave the women and Stevie as they play bingo, one of the only pleasures in this hardscrabble life. Oz seems as far away as ever.
Anchored by Bunch's gritty performance, which expertly mines the good and bad within Margie, Good People sweeps you along even when it tends to overplay its theme. Director James Black keeps the flame on high, smartly using all the facets of the in-the-round Neuhaus Stage. The comedy is deftly woven among the dramatic. Kevin Rigdon's right-on impressionistic sets and lighting run the gamut from the tinny kitchen table, harsh fluorescent lights that drop down for the bingo parlor and high-end crystal chandeliers in Chestnut Hill to a graffiti-encrusted pillar near that Dollar Store. Janicalle Pytel's lived-in clothes say just the right thing, too.
Scratch a person and you might find a surprise underneath. Is it a nice one? Go to the Alley and find out for yourself. For sure, you will come away thinking that everyone involved with this production is indeed a very good person.
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This production, coupled with Christopher Durang's exceptional Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike playing upstairs on the Hubbard Stage through June 15, wraps up the Alley's evocative current season and marks the closing of the theater for one year while a $50 million renovation transforms the lobby and the Hubbard theater. The expanded stage will be state-of-the-art, computer-driven and outfitted with a fly loft for scenery, with wider space offstage and room for an orchestra pit when needed. The number of seats will be reduced, bringing the audience closer to the action. Unfortunately, the hideous, brutal-looking exterior, a place that other witch from Oz would fondly call home, is only going to be cleaned, not bulldozed.
The 2014-15 season will be produced at the University of Houston. Among the highlights: Horton Foote's Old Friends with Elizabeth Ashley and Hallie Foote; the Edward Gorey-designed Dracula; Shakespeare's romance As You Like It; interactive English theater company Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult; Hershey Felder's one-man bio George Gershwin Alone; and Arthur Miller's wrenching All My Sons.
The grand reopening at 615 Texas is scheduled for October 2015. On with the show!