Geffen Playhouse | 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through May 13 | Tickets $35-55 | geffenplayhouse.com
David Lindsay-Abaire has written some striking shows that are usually filled with extreme behavior and a lot of heart. He departed from his usual with the intense Rabbit Hole, about a couple losing a child (made into a film with Nicole Kidman), but now returns with the funny and heartbreaking Good People. Starring Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), the play revolves around Margie, a “Southie” from South Boston who has just been fired from her job at the 99 Cent Store for being incessantly late. Her boss, Stevie (Brad Fleischer), is not without heart, but he has a job to do, and if he doesn’t fire Margie, he will get fired himself. Even with Maggie begging him to not let her go, he has no choice.
Margie rents an apartment in a house owned by Dottie (the hilarious Marylouise Burke), a nutty older lady who has a hobby of making rabbits out of flower pots and Styrofoam. A little clueless, she often helps Margie care for her adult daughter Joyce, who has special needs. They also share a living space with Jean (Sara Botsford), a straight-shooting redhead with a thicker “Bahstahn” accent and the attitude to match. When Jean tells Margie that an old high school flame named Mike is back in town—and that he’s a doctor—Margie goes to see him, hoping that he might have a job.
When she arrives, the chasm between the two is clearly drawn. Mike (Jon Tenney)—an old Southie himself—is now successful, well-spoken and polite. Margie, on the other hand, is blunt, opinionated and desperate. That the two had a brief fling the summer before Mike went away to school becomes the one link that holds the two together. And even though the two start to push each other’s buttons, Mike invites her to a birthday party his much younger wife, Kate (Cherise Boothe), is throwing for him. He offers that it will be filled with a bunch of doctors and their boring wives, but perhaps there is someone there that might have a job for her. Eventually, Margie will make her way to Mike’s beautiful home in the affluent Chestnut Hill, and there, many secrets will surface and the true nature of what it means to be “good” will be revealed.
While it appears that Abaire’s play is fairly simplistic, what makes Good People so compelling is Kaczmarek’s performance. Kaczmarek creates a woman who is unashamed to be who she is and is proud to be where she’s from. She’s blunt, a bit vulgar and shoots from the hip. But she is also damaged from years of bad luck and disappointment. While on the surface she might seem to be an aimless, irresponsible single mother—as layers of her life are revealed—we realize she is anything but. And in today’s climate of scarce job opportunities, this play will hit home for many people. The GOP can call people lazy all they want, but it is the circumstances and personal situations that create the challenges of many of those people who are struggling to live.
Kaczmarek forms Margie into a complex knot of durability, sorrow and hopelessness. She is a woman that is so frantic to be able to take care of her daughter and herself that she strips away all ego and lays herself out to anyone that might have a scrap for her. It’s a humbling position to be in, and when Kaczmarek stands in front of her old flame—her shoulders slightly hunched forward as if she is physically supplicating him—her desperation is clearly drawn. And a memorable character is brought to vivid life.
The set design by Craig Siebels is perfectly detailed and as directed by Matt Shakman, the action and actors all excel. This isn’t a play as hard-hitting as Rabbit Hole, and at times it recalls a slightly darker Roseanne episode, but it ultimately becomes a compelling study of what we do to survive. And what it means to be good. —Kevin P. Taft
Naked Before God
[Inside] the Ford | 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd | Through April 28 | Tickets $25 | fordtheatres.org
Pornography, religion, family ties and the military collide in grand style in Leo Geter’s madcap contemporary farce given a sharply polished world-premiere staging at [Inside] the Ford by the adventurous Circle X Theatre Company. Naked Before God is the first full production to spring from the company’s writers’ group and, with financial and technical assistance from the L.A. County Arts Commission’s Winter Partnership program, the result is an appealing comedic soufflé that mixes top-notch production values with wickedly accomplished performances, but ultimately feels a little empty inside.
Geter (who also directs) introduces us to Kristen Burrows (Jennifer A. Skinner), a perky, 40-something former porn star now living in a tract house in Phoenix with her 19-year-old son, Duncan (Morgan McClellan), and his older, pregnant wife, Carly (Jen Kays). The play begins with father-to-be Duncan preparing for his own very first porn audition—for a gay Internet site—and Kristen providing maternal support; and it gets loopier from there. Kristen is banking on a Christian radio host (William Salyers) to help combine her sordid past and her newfound faith to catapult to fame and fortune, but when Duncan brings home his suspiciously naïve scene partner, Nick (Christopher Foley), and Kristen’s ex, Vinnie (Larry Clarke), storms the house on his way home from Afghanistan with Army pal Octavio (Aly Mawji), the comic conflicts of interest in the house escalate exponentially.
Geter’s bedrock collision of porn and religion has the makings of a fascinating exploration, with shades of Christopher Durang in the contemporary absurdity of Kristen’s Lucy-like plotting. But we’re never certain how sincere her religious zealotry is, or how far Geter’s tongue is planted in his cheek. Attempts to dig deeper in the sometimes-wandering second act don’t feel fully earned.
The cast members hurl themselves into their roles, with Skinner bringing a breathtakingly bold abandon to the manic Kristen, hilariously hanging on to her high hopes by a thread. McClellan has an easy charm as the dozy son, and Kays brings some expert underplaying to Carly’s razor-sharp repartee. By the sheer force of his compelling and wonderfully surprising performance, Clarke’s Vinnie becomes the heart of the play, an outsized vet on the lam with layers of secrets surrounding a heart of gold.
Geter’s staging has a deceptive ease, as his expert cast effortlessly crisscrosses Brian Sidley Bembridge’s perfectly mediocre Southwest suburban-home set. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes are spot on, even as several characters take most of them off. Overall, there are laughs aplenty and pleasing performances. It just feels that Geter is aiming for more. When the skilled writer finds it in future drafts, Naked will be a knockout. —Christopher Cappiello