When Margaret realizes she’s being fired in the opening scene of “Good People,” her relaxed face freezes in a mask of panic.
No golden parachute awaits this 50-year-old, $9.20-an-hour cashier in South Boston.
As Margaret, Frances McDormand reveals a gift for conveying epiphanies with quicksilver movements -- tics that register like lightning bolts. Simply arching her eyebrows can charge the atmosphere with the air of Margaret’s desperation.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s new drama, presented on Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club, finds Margaret at the end of her rope, a place she’s been before. Proudly coarse and self-reliant, she announces to her landlady (the irrepressible Estelle Parsons) and best friend (blowsy Becky Ann Baker) that no job is too menial for her. She’s not interested in charity, and she’s used to hard work in this bleak, white working-class section of Boston.
As her prospects dim, she visits Mike (Tate Donovan), the high school flame who escaped to the University of Pennsylvania and is now a successful suburban doctor with a beautiful young black wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and child.
In his tony office, their banter brings the neighborhood kid in him back to the surface, especially when she calls him “lace curtain Irish.”
Margaret’s inevitable encounter with Mike’s wife, Kate, feels pre-ordained. And yet Lindsay-Abaire draws all these people (including the store manager who cans Margaret) with sympathetic strokes.
As Margaret grows more desperate, McDormand seems to expand, the way some animals can blow themselves up to look more fearsome when they sense danger. Only Mike seems out of joint, more because Donovan works too hard playing a character so uncomfortable in his own skin that he’s shed it for a new one.
Lindsay-Abaire, a writer with a strong streak of whimsy, has gone serious and even weepy lately. “Rabbit Hole” is now an Oscar-nominated film starring Nicole Kidman. “Good People” has plenty of humor -- much of it provided by the indefatigable 83-year-old Parsons, a potty-mouthed Cassandra in her mismatched layers of thrift-shop clothes (the fine costumes are by David Zinn).
Director Daniel Sullivan can’t finesse the play’s contrivances. Chief among them is the familiar setup of a confrontation between a proud denizen of the old neighborhood and the successful striver who escaped while clinging to a highly selective, even romanticized, version of his rough-and-tumble childhood. But John Lee Beatty’s evocative sets and Pat Collins’s pale verismo lighting lift the show above the norm.
Through May 8 at the Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ** 1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)