Are people born into circumstances they can’t control, and in turn have an uphill rock-climb in order to escape?
It’s the central question of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony-nominated Good People, currently having its area premiere at WaterTower Theatre in an off-balance production, directed by René Moreno.
Abaire began his career with enjoyable whimsy, writing plays rife with quirky characters, such as Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo. His Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-nominated Rabbit Hole plumbed the depths of loss and forgiveness.
Here he nicely mixes occasionally hysterical comedy with angry drama, although you’ll have to wait until the second act to get a healthy dose of either.
In the first scene, Margaret (Jessica Cavanagh) is fired from her Dollar Store job by friend Stevie (David Price), who’s acting on orders to finally let go an employee with a chronic lateness problem. She had certain circumstances, you see. And plenty of excuses.
Being working class in South Boston, single and with a child to feed, she needs a job; her bingo-playing friend Jean (Michelle Courtney Schwartz) and landlady Dottie (the always great Pamela Dougherty) attempt to help.
Margie, as they call her, finds out that a childhood friend and brief high school flame, Mike (James Crawford), is now a doctor in town. Off she goes to see if he has a job for her, be it office or janitorial work. It’s easy to see where it’s going, although there is an unexpected twist in the second act.
In this production, pacing lags in the first act, saddled with too many of those too-long, awkward pauses that come with uncomfortable conversations.
Part of the blame is the cumbersome set, by the usually more intuitive Scott Osborne. When multiple locations are required, the scenic design relies on set crews to make changes that extend the blackouts too long. This is an epidemic that plagues several local theaters with small stages, but WaterTower has plenty of room on the Addison Theatre Centre stage, so it’s baffling.
The bigger issue with Moreno’s production is the casting of Margie and Mike. In the script, they’re both about 50 (Frances McDormand won a Tony for best actress in a play for the role). Crawford fits the bill, but Cavanagh looks no older than early 30s, so all of their conversations about being friends in school, despite that she was held back a year and he skipped a grade, are confusing.
Cavanagh dips into the pathos, and she and Crawford have some deliciously angry banter in the second act, but it never rings genuine. They, along with the other Southie characters, do a fine job with the accents (Susan Sargeant, a local director and Boston native, was the dialect coach).
JuNene K. as Mike’s early 30s wife — and the only semi-likeable character of these three — is a calm, balancing force, but she and Cavanagh look the same age, so Margie’s initial observations that he has married someone much younger than they are is off.
There’s good material in Good People, some quite funny and thought provoking. But at WaterTower, it’s not good enough.