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School opened up a class conflict for David Lindsay-Abaire

The playwright, son of working-class parents, got a chance as a kid to attend an exclusive academy. What he experienced there is the basis of 'Good People,' about a class divide that has yawned open.

May 08, 2011|By Patrick Pacheco, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Screenwriter-playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.
Screenwriter-playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. (Matt Carr / Getty Images )

Reporting from New York —

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire says he never enjoyed bingo, though it was his mother's weekly ritual in their South Boston, or "Southie," neighborhood. He liked going to the racetrack with his working-class father even less.

"But these were the things that you could attach hope to," he says, "and that's pretty much what everybody in the neighborhood did."

Hoping the bingo ball will pop their way is certainly what the darkly humorous characters do in "Good People," Lindsay-Abaire's Broadway drama, which returns the Pulitzer-winning playwright ("Rabbit Hole") to his blue-collar roots.

Yet when Margie Walsh, played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, loses her job as a dollar-store cashier, she is forced to rely on more than just the luck of the draw. Destitute but responsible for a mentally handicapped adult child, she seeks out Mikey Dillon (Tate Donovan), a high school beau who is now a rich, socially connected doctor. Margie's just looking for a job, but the reunion brings on an explosive clash of class and culture.

Scott Brown, writing in New York magazine, called Margie "the richest, most fabulously flawed character yet" in the Lindsay-Abaire canon and praised the play for unsentimentally tackling an issue rarely seen on the Broadway stage: class conflict in the U.S.

As a writer who made his reputation with the absurdist comedies "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo" as well as the musicals "High Fidelity" and "Shrek!," Lindsay-Abaire might seem an unlikely candidate to probe America's social darkness. But "Good People" has what Lindsay-Abaire says typifies his work: "outsiders in search of clarity."

"David's portrait of humanity is so clear-eyed, he really nails us," says Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which has produced six of his plays. "Yet at the same time, he is so versatile, true and funny. He has a real affection for his characters."

Manhattan Theatre Club's investment in Lindsay-Abaire has paid off yet again with a Tony nomination this season for best play as well as a nod for Frances McDormand as leading actress in a play. This is his third time at the altar with Tony, having been nominated previously for "Shrek" and for the MTC-produced "Rabbit Hole." He'll go to the Tonys on June 12 with hope and resignation.

"I've lost to a Brit every time," he says philosophically, referring to the musical "Billy Elliot" and the drama "History Boys" while acknowledging the stiff competition this year from "War Horse," a transfer from London's West End. ("Jerusalem," also a London import, and "The Mother… With the Hat" by American Stephen Adly Guirgis round out the best play category.)

But, adds Lindsay-Abaire, "It's nice to be on the list, and I especially love that Southie is represented. That means a lot."

Indeed, sitting in a Midtown conference room, the 41-year-old playwright recalls with quiet charm and wry humor growing up on a trajectory not unlike that of Margie and her ilk. That is, until the bright 11-year-old "Bearzo," as he was called then, was awarded a scholarship to Milton Academy, a bastion of Boston's affluent, privileged elite. No one in his extended family had ever graduated from college, much less a private school. His father, known as "Bugsy," sold fruit out of a back of a beaten-up old van; his mother, Sally, worked in a factory. His parents were as perplexed at the change in their son's fortunes as he was.

"The school was seven miles away from Southie, but it may as well have been a thousand," he says of the neighborhood that has figured in movies such as "The Town" and "The Departed." "You so want to fit in, to feel 'normal,' so I was scared both for them and for myself. Maybe it was a fear of embarrassment, but I also did not want them to feel badly, pressed upon by class. From the beginning, I was not too eager to reveal where I came from."

That was less from the fear of being perceived as poor as being perceived as a racist. South Boston, after all, had been the epicenter of the protests against forced-busing to integrate schools in the 1970s Although race is part of the fabric of "Good People" — Mikey is married to a beautiful African American socialite — the play centers on the widening gulf between classes.

Within his first few months at Milton, the playwright learned firsthand the same insecurities that would plague Margie as she assails Mikey, first in his office, then in his home after she invites herself to a birthday party being thrown for him by his wife.

Recalls Lindsay-Abaire, "I was walking across the campus early on and somebody yelled, 'Hey, Fonzie! Yeah, you! You're the one who wore that black satin jacket.' And I remembered that earlier that summer, I had carefully picked out this jacket that I loved — 'I'll wear this one to Milton' — and now this guy was sticking it against me. The stupidest stuff. But when you're 11, it's devastating!"

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