Seen and Heard

Seen on Broadway: “Southie” has made it to the stage. The depressed Boston neighborhood, seen onscreen in The Departed, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, is the focus of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, his first drama since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole in 2006. Outside of a half-baked blackmail scheme there are no crimes here, just the desperation of people exhausted from living in hope. Margaret (Frances McDormand) has lost her latest dead-end job and looks set to lose her apartment, no matter that landlady Dottie (Estelle Parsons) has a certain sarcastic empathy for her plight (and watches her disabled daughter for a small fee). Margaret’s world-weary friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker) urges her to seek out a local boy made good, Mike (Tate Donovan)—now a prestigious doctor with a Chestnut Hill address, then a juvenile delinquent and Margaret’s one-time boyfriend. An awkward meeting in Mike’s office leads to a more fraught encounter at his home, when a slighted Margaret shows up for a birthday party that has been cancelled—where she finds something of an ally in Mike’s young African-American wife Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who has her own take on class and discrimination in America.

To his credit Lindsay-Abaire (who based the show on his own working-class upbringing in Boston) doesn’t use his characters as symbols for our economic and spiritual decline, and Daniel Sullivan has keenly directed the actors. But the show has the synthetic quality that mars his more whimsical shows, one that the play and film of Rabbit Hole kept at bay. I never felt terribly invested in it, perhaps because the playwright tip-toes around Margaret’s less sympathetic qualities; we never get a complete portrait of her, and so the show feels like it’s missing vital pieces. It’s at its best when she, Jean, and Dottie are kibitzing in her apartment, then unresolved and less engaging when Margaret moves into the wider world, though Goldsberry provides a nice sounding board for her thwarted hopes and confused desires.

More fully realized are John Lee Beatty’s turntable-mounted sets, ranging from Margaret’s hard-scrabble but homey apartment and Mike and Kate’s spacious, tastefully decorated house—you feel the weight of the journey Margaret has taken when she arrives there, dressed her best (David Zinn’s costuming is suitably class-conscious) but out of place and floundering despite her bravado. Pat Collins’ lighting design and Jill BC DuBoff’s audio move with equal ease through these worlds, providing a sturdy frame for an unsteady play. A Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman, Good People is scheduled to run through May 8.

There are good people involved in the revival of Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, which was deemed good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Gregory Mosher, who directed the acclaimed return of A View from the Bridge last season, is fielding an all-pro cast: Brian Cox, Jason Patric (Miller’s son), Chris Noth, and, in their Broadway debuts, Kiefer Sutherland and comedian Jim Gaffigan. Its most flavorful element, however, is Michael Yeargan’s set, the interior of the Victorian house where Cox’s character, a former basketball coach at a Catholic high school in Scranton, PA, lives. It’s an elegant but musty place, in need of a woman’s touch, or a woman besides the coach’s deceased mother. There are things that are pure 1972, like a boxy old TV in front of a disused fireplace, but mostly you’re drawn to the photos and portraits that adorn the mantle and wall, all of his heroes: Joe McCarthy, Teddy Roosevelt, and his “boys,” who won the championship 20 years earlier.

Coach has brought out the trophy to celebrate a team reunion. The boys, however, have grown uneasily into middle age, and the values that have sustained them have largely collapsed or have proved to be false or outmoded in changing times. The political machine that these paragons have come to represent in the interim is “under attack” by a smart Jewish contender for town mayor, a position ineffectually filled by George (Jim Gaffigan); they plan to retaliate with a dirty tricks campaign, but internal dissension is a bigger problem as adultery and alcoholism rear their ugly heads.

The entire show is actually rather squalid, with foul-mouthed tirades and put-downs aimed at women and minorities, which this revival hasn’t attempted to scrub. It feels 1972 down to its bones—and a little 2011, as Coach’s invective has the ring of our Tea Party to it. Mosher, however, hasn’t given it enough urgency—the big revelations were shopworn by the time Miller directed a starry film version, in 1982, and of the emotionally hobbled players only Gaffigan seems sufficiently worn out. (The rest have some good moments, with only Cox giving a truly rooted performance). Patchily illuminating the show is watchable, yet the house has more to say than its occupants.

Speaking up for themselves, too, are Jane Greenwood’s dutiful costumes (everyone wears ties), Peter Kaczorowski’s faded-around-the-borders lighting, and a sound design by Scott Lehrer that sends each shout and expletive to every corner of the house in the Jacobs. That Championship Season is scheduled to run through May 29.

Seen Off Broadway: There are several reasons to set sail for Brooklyn to see Treasure Island, which is playing at the Irondale Center through April 7. One is to enjoy the exuberant fight choreography by Tony winner B.H Barry, who co-adapted the show (with Vernon Morris) and directed it from Robert Louis Stevenson’s seagoing chestnut. Each act has a big battle involving all the actors and there is much brandishing of swords and cutlasses, and while the subway will be an inconvenience for some it’s nice not to have to go all the way to the Caribbean to see old-school pirates in action.

The others are designers doing much in a formidable space with comparatively little, and making stage magic. Tony Straiges has put in just enough of a pirate ship, including a mast and some rigging, to convince you that the entire vessel is right in front of you. Luke Brown’s fun costumes are straight from the backlots of Warner Bros. and MGM. Stewart Wagner’s textured lighting is transporting to olden times. And there is fairly awesome sound design by Will Pickens—the timbers do shiver when storms brew at sea and the sea chanteys are gorgeous to listen to. All I could have hoped for from a play of Treasure Island was right in front of me, and this more modest effort succeeds where The Pirate Queen sank a few seasons back on Broadway. Plus there’s a very real parrot amidst all the enchanting make-believe.

At some point however narration and the best efforts of a seaworthy cast that includes Tom Hewitt as the charismatic Long John Silver and Noah E. Galvin as the resourceful Jim can’t disguise the fact that the adaptation is taking on water; more pruning and reshaping is required for future productions. But guided by superior stagecraft this Treasure Island swashes more than it buckles.

Equipment Vendors

Good People

Scenery Fabrication: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound

That Championship Season

Scenery Fabrication and Painting: Global Scenic Services
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: PRG

Treasure Island

Sets: Hudson Scenic Studio
Lighting Equipment: Scharff Weisberg
Audio Equipment: One Dream Sound

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