Two Pulitzer-winning playwrights are tackling issues of race and class on local stages, one playwright uncannily mimicking, in a provocative and nuanced dramedy, the odd speech patterns of folks who seek to obfuscate with language, the other arguing mostly with himself in a schematic script that might generously be described as a polemic.
Guess which one is David Mamet.
Had I posed that question in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s, the linguistic provocateur would almost certainly have been the author of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Wag the Dog. Today, not so much—at least not in Race, a lawyerly dissertation on how ethnicity plays into issues of guilt and shame, which feels too tidy structurally even as it’s spitting out fusillades of Mametspeak.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s nuanced Good People, meanwhile, brims over with the sort of convivial, blunt blue-collar bonhomie that can turn corrosive in an instant. The play centers on Margie (Johanna Day) a plainspoken-to-a-fault single mom who loses her job largely because she must care for her disabled adult daughter. She thinks she spies a lifeline in Mike (Andrew Long), a high school fling she hasn’t seen in 30 years. He’s now a fertility doctor, recently returned to the hardscrabble South Boston neighborhood from which she never escaped. Her bingo-playing buddies urge her to hit him up for a job, so she visits his office, and it’s quickly clear she still knows how to push his buttons.
He’s been lucky in life, she notes, and is no longer a Southie; he’s worked hard, he replies, annoyed when she calls him “lace-curtain Irish.” Their conversation devolves into a verbal game of chicken, and even she’s not surprised when it does not result in a job offer. She does manage, however, to score an invitation to a party where she hopes to hit up his friends, by which time you may be feeling slightly sorry for Mike. Rest assured, that won’t last.
There aren’t really any good people in Good People, but there are some rattling good fights and a fascinating exploration of American notions of class—specifically, what the upwardly mobile owe the less-fortunate folks they’ve clambered over. And at the play’s final preview, Jackie Maxwell’s explosively funny, and then just plain explosive, production was brusquely making the social undertones resonate even as it showcased a stageful of rich, affecting performances—chief among them Long’s slow-burning but combustible Mike, Francesca Choy-Kee as Mike’s poised but insecure wife, and Day’s passive-aggressive, angry, vulnerable, empathetic trainwreck of a heroine—one you’ll root for and shrink from in about equal measure.