Off-Broadway Theater Review: GOOD WITH PEOPLE (59E59 Theaters)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on April 3, 2013

in Theater-New York

SEEING ISN’T FEELING

Blythe Duff and Andrew Scott-Ramsay deliver rich, convincing performances in David Harrower’s worthwhile if not completely satisfying play Good with People. Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, currently at 59E59 Theaters, this two-person show concerns itself with the interaction between Helen (Ms. Duff), the middle-aged manager of a small hotel in a dying seaside town in Scotland, and Evan (Mr. Scott-Ramsay), a young man staying at the hotel for a night, who’s returned from abroad to attend his parents’ second wedding.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema "Brits Off-Broadway" review of GOOD WITH PEOPLE.Initially, when Evan arrives, Helen appears hostile towards him, and we soon find out why: Evan was her son’s schoolmate years ago, and as teenagers Evan and some friends stripped her son naked in retaliation for the boy demonstrating against the town’s nuclear navy base, and made him run home as he was; when he got to his house it was locked and empty, and he was forced to wait shivering in the bushes for hours until Helen came home. But amid Helen’s hostility we also sense feelings of pity for Evan, as well as a simmering sexual attraction to him.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema "Brits Off-Broadway" review of GOOD WITH PEOPLE.Good with People can be viewed as an allegory, with Helen as a kind of Mother Scotland who’s been forsaken: Her once thriving town and hotel stand nearly empty; she’s ignored by her husband (i.e. poorly husbanded); she’s no longer emotionally close with her son who’s recently moved away; and her sea is polluted with nuclear waste. A few people still remain in the town, like Evan’s parents, but Helen and they are not friends. And we can infer about his parents that they only stay because there’s no demand for them anywhere else: Five years ago they divorced over an infidelity but have since concluded that they are suited only for one another and got back together – a decision, we sense, born less of some deeply spiritual feelings and more of expedience.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema "Brits Off-Broadway" review of GOOD WITH PEOPLE.In this allegorical construction, Evan has the role of the son who’s returned to his motherland, even if it is only for one night and more out of a sense of obligation to his parents than anything else. However he had behaved in his youth he has grown into a remarkably decent and brave man. When he talks of himself it’s as if he’s understating his moral qualities: He speaks of volunteering with the Red Cross in war-torn Middle East for the purpose of improving his resume. And although he appears to take a great deal of pride in his professional accomplishments – he’s a nurse – one gets the sense that he does so with a hint of spiteful irony.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema "Brits Off-Broadway" review of GOOD WITH PEOPLE.Evan is not the returning conqueror; he is neither paladin nor prodigal son. He’s simply a good man who’s experienced the vicissitudes of life, little humiliations and beatings that seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but which are nonetheless painful and leave their scars. And Helen pities him for it, just as she does her son every time she imagines her boy, naked and shivering, hiding behind the bushes in front of her locked house waiting for her to get home (a powerful recurring image). Her pity is that of the eternal mother, and it is from that pity as much as from anything else, that her attraction to Evan flowers. At once sexual and maternal (and by inference incestuous), the sense is that for her loving this young man would be a way of filling that which is empty inside her: he can serve as husband, son, friend, youth, hope, purity, revitalization, etc. And as awkward and untenable as this potential romance might be, it is all that Helen has or can hope for.

Such is the picture of modern small-town Scotland that Mr. Harrower seems to be painting. There are many references in his play to Scottish life which, if one were familiar with that country, perhaps might carry some dramatic weight. But for this New York critic they feel like generalities, placeholders in the story waiting in vain to be replaced by nuggets of substance.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema "Brits Off-Broadway" review of GOOD WITH PEOPLE.Deftly directed by George Perrin, with an outstanding lighting design by Tim Deiling, and a beautifully evocative sound design by Scott Twynholm, this 55-minute one-act’s big problem is that only one thing happens, at the climax, and that’s not enough. Everything leading up to the ending is backstory, reminiscences, explanations, which show rather than reveal. However grand the metaphorical stakes are, the real stakes for the characters feel soft. There isn’t enough meaningful conflict. It’s as if for the duration of the play a whole bunch of facts are being loaded into a cannon so that when it fires at the end the climax has resonance. And it does. But with everything laid out plainly for us to see, depriving us of the emotional experience of independently discovering the play’s secrets, one is tempted to ask “So what?” Yes, small towns get abandoned, yes, children leave their mothers, husbands stop loving their wives, kids get beat up and humiliated by classmates, the Taliban is cruel but made up of human beings, and getting beaten by them for defending a patient is about as heroic an act as an ordinary person can manage. But we already know all this; we don’t need a play to tell it to us, we need it to make us feel it. And at this Good with People succeeds a little bit less than it fails.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Good with People
Traverse Theatre Company and Datum Point in association with Paines Plough
part of the 2013 Brits Off Broadway festival
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
scheduled to end on April 21, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

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