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.
The set-up: "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 if she's good or bad. 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.
The execution: As prickly 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.
She's desperate for a job, anything will do, having just been fired by manager friend Stevie (Dylan Godwin) from her cashier job 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 Alley's August: Osage County) are a type of extended family. All three gals don't censor their thoughts, saying whatever's on their mind at the moment.
It's here in the ratty kitchen where 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 hurtle 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, her 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 it before, but Jean, the "mouthie from Southie" convinces Margie to pull a Maury Povitch 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 Afro-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 a 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.
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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 hard-scrabble 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. Kevin Rigdon's right-on impressionistic sets and lighting run the gamut from the tinny kitchen table, harsh florescent lights that drop down for the bingo parlor, 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.
The verdict: Scratch a person and you might find a surprise underneath. It is 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.
Good People runs through June 29 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information call 713-220-5700.or visit alleytheatre.org $26-$75.