Good People, which opens the SEASON at the Huntington Theatre Company, is a schizoid experience. The first act of David Lindsay-Abaire's play is a hard-boiled class comedy set among tough, sharp-witted, self-deprecating South Boston women struggling to keep afloat in a punishing economy. Margaret (Johanna Day), the protagonist, loses her job at a dollar store because of her chronic lateness, but it's not her fault: she's the single mother of a severely mentally disabled daughter (now adult). She relies on her landlady, Dottie (Nancy E. Carroll), to babysit, and Dottie doesn't always show up on time. Margaret's best friend Jean (Karen MacDonald) persuades her to pay a visit to an old boyfriend, Mike (Michael Laurence), a Southie kid who made good: he attended Penn, got a medical degree, and now lives with his family in Chestnut Hill. Jean thinks Mike might come up with a job for Margaret. Their meeting is a kind of verbal boxing match. Mike (who has been avoiding her calls) sticks on the defensive, keeping his dukes up while he ducks her blows with pretended good grace that wears thin as the scene goes on.
The first act abounds in a bitter, eruptive survivalist humor, and the director, Kate Whoriskey, plays it at entertainingly high speed. Then, in act two, you pay for your pleasure. Margaret winds up at Mike's house for a birthday party he told her his wife, Kate (Rachael Holmes), cancelled when their daughter got sick. Margaret assumes that's just a lie Mike whipped up — that he was really reneging on the invitation Margaret wheedled out of him in his office. But it's not a lie, and Margaret finds herself the only (uninvited) guest. At first Lindsay-Abaire seems to be mining more comedy out of the opposites match of the two women: Kate is an African-American BU English professor who grew up in Georgetown. But the play quickly descends into melodrama, with Mike — who, Margaret has been insisting to her Southie women friends, is "good people" — as the villain.
Laurence gives a colorless performance as Mike, but the actresses are all strong, as is Nick Westrate in the small but well-written role of the young boss (another Southie kid) who's obliged, reluctantly, to let Margaret go. Alexander Dodge's scenic designs are clever and evocative. The play's a crowd pleaser, especially for Boston audiences, but only act one hits the mark.
GOOD PEOPLE :: Huntington Theatre Company :: Through October 14 :: Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston :: $30-$95 :: 617.266.7900 or huntingtontheatre.org