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In New York, 'Good People' a sign of hope for this theater season

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By Peter Marks
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 11:05 PM

IN NEW YORK -- Alook of terror flashes in the eyes of Tate Donovan in the stomach-knotting second act of David Lindsay-Abaire's scintillating new comedy-drama, "Good People." It's the gaze of a cornered man, one whose smug sense of control is being systematically dismantled by the thorniest of tormentors, a friend from the old neighborhood with a simmering romantic grudge.

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That the friend is played by Frances McDormand - giving perhaps the most satisfying stage performance of her career - intensifies by magnitudes the electric unease, the uncomfortable feeling that the binding of a "perfect" life tenuously held together is about to come undone.

The arrival of "Good People," which opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is a particularly reassuring event as the spring theater season in New York begins to blossom - a season whose public-relations mojo has been shanghaied by some ridiculously expensive claptrap about a webby superhero on wires.

Happily, it joins some other finely wrought pieces that have materialized of late on Broadway and off, such as Roundabout Theatre Company's buoyant staging of "The Importance of Being Earnest," featuring a blissfully calculating Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell. In that category, too, belongs Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," a bountifully insightful comedy about a Reaganite family in the California desert that just ended a triumphant off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center Theater and deserves to reemerge on Broadway.

The news is not quite so encouraging, however, at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where an A-list cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth) is wrestling with the shopworn mechanics of "That Championship Season," which opened Sunday night. The 1972 play, a portrait of ex-high school basketball players who, 20 years earlier, cheated their way to a state title, has not aged gracefully, an unfortunate reality reinforced by several rather mismatched performances.

Nevertheless, in the schizoid entertainment zone that the theater district increasingly has become - with more and more subpar musicals and lower-middlebrow dramas filling the playhouses - most of these new entries tip the scales in the heavyweight category. It's a sign of the extreme bifurcation of taste on Broadway that a brand-name bag o' wind such as "The Addams Family" can continue to draw customers, even as sharp and thoughtful plays such as the Manhattan Theatre Club's "Good People" spring up for more discerning audiences.

Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Rabbit Hole," his absorbing study of a grieving family that became a movie with Nicole Kidman, is working in a more acerbically comic vein in "Good People," the story of McDormand's Margaret Walsh, a hard-luck single mom and lifelong denizen of heavily Irish working-class South Boston. Fired from a minimum-wage job at a dollar store and under pressure from her alternately consoling and uncharitable landlady - played to the plain-talking hilt by Estelle Parsons - Margaret goes hat in hand one day to Donovan's appealingly rendered Mike, who's become a fertility doctor. More to the point, he's made it out of Southie and settled into plushly upholstered suburban comfort with wife Kate (the remarkable Renee Elise Goldsberry).

Director Daniel Sullivan's laser-guided precision helps the cast ratchet up the tension among the play's haves and have-nots, especially in the centerpiece scene in Act 2, when Margaret appears at Mike's door and spills out a history Mike had kept from his mate. McDormand is a flat-out marvel here, offering up a performance that is terrifying in its reasonableness and righteousness. Margaret's truth-telling makes her our hero, but in her unrepentant wounding of philandering Mike, can she be looked upon as a better person than he?

If McDormand's earthy magnetism gives "Good People" its most important kick, Bedford adorns the revival of "The Importance of Being Earnest" with a frillier charisma. A tradition exists of men in the role of Lady Bracknell, the bulldozing arbiter of taste in Wilde's delirious farce. But few actors have approached the part with such a consummate air of understatement. Bracknell has some of the funniest ripostes ever put in the mouth of a fictional character; Bedford adds to the playwright's gifts some of the funniest gazes, gestures that communicate regal disgust in the mere hooding of a jaded eye.

He's also directed the production, which has been extended at the American Airlines Theatre. Bedford has surrounded himself with a game crew of farceurs, most notably the suave Santino Fontana as Algernon Moncrieff, a bon vivant who in this case meets the part's effervescent dictates. The evening dances along to its own music of purely frivolous merriment.

While many expert eyes and hands also lavish attention on the new revival of "That Championship Season," the results are not nearly as satisfying. The smart and incisive Gregory Mosher (Broadway's "A View From the Bridge"; the Kennedy Center's "The Glass Menagerie") has the directorial reins on this occasion, but he's unable to elevate the dramatic stakes of Jason Miller's dated, Pulitzer-winning play above the predictable terrain of a liquor-fueled confessional.

The setting is a basketball team reunion in a mid-size city in Pennsylvania, where a bigoted coach (Brian Cox) is boozing it up with his former players, now each calcified into a middle-aged monument to corruption, betrayal and bitterness. Only Tom (Jason Patric, son of the late playwright) sees them all for the shallow losers they have all become.

The conflicts among them, though, never ignite, and we're left with a dreary canvas of American values in serious jeopardy. It doesn't help that the estimable Cox is miscast here, playing a self-aggrandizing narcissist as a man who wants the best for his boys. That he cares only about how much they think of him gets lost in the attempt to infuse a minor work with deeper meaning.

Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Pat Collins; sound, Jill BC DuBoff. With Becky Ann Baker, Patrick Carroll. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Brian Bedford. Sets and costumes, Desmond Heeley; lighting, Duane Schuler; sound, Drew Levy; original music, Berthold Carriere. With David Furr, Charlotte Parry, Sara Topham. At American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Call 212-719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.

That Championship Season by Jason Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Set, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Scott Lehrer. About 2 hours 10 minutes. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. For both this play and "Good People," call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.


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