Few playwrights have managed to blend laugh-out-loud humor with heart-wrenching poignancy to the degree accomplished by David Lindsay-Abaire in his brilliantly devised play "Good People," currently on stage at the Chance Theater in Anaheim.
It's a compelling yet quite simple story of a woman's desperate attempts to find employment, counterbalanced by a plethora of punch lines calculated to serve as necessary comic relief but equally strategic to the plot. Director Jocelyn A. Brown has mined some rich theatrical gold in this Orange County premiere production.
Aside from the six characters in Lindsay-Abaire's play, a seventh looms large, the slum-like neighborhood of South Boston — the infamous Southie — where most of them grew up. That some escape that area while others feel trapped in it is the crux of the story.
While Brown has orchestrated an ensemble curtain call, one of her performers deserves a solo spotlight. Amanda Zarr delivers a superlative portrayal of Margaret, the luckless Southie woman struggling to stay afloat as a high school classmate achieves bigger and better things.
Zarr magnifies her character — and masters the difficult Boston accent — as she resorts to subterfuge in her attempt to secure some form of employment. The play's second act, a face-off between the haves and have-nots, features throat-catching dramatic revelations spiced with some poignant one-liners.
Also very impressive is Robert Foran as Mike, the guy who made it out of Southie and now is a successful and unaccented doctor who once had a two-week fling with Margaret when both were teenagers. As much as he tries to be one of the "good people," his anger and resentment manage to get the most of him in a gripping penultimate scene.
The comedic portions of the show are nicely handled by Karen Webster and Bridgette Campbell as Margaret's Southie buddies who share bingo and career advice sessions with her. Webster in particular is a hoot as her caustic but forgiving landlady who fashions toy bunnies as a side business.
Taj Johnson comes off strongly and proudly as Mike's African American wife who's big on diplomacy, up to a point. Alec Kenney tends to underplay the role of Margaret's former employer who reluctantly dismisses her in the opening scene.
The multiple-set scenic design by Christopher Scott Murillo works well within the Chance's limited dimensions. Bruce Goodrich's costumes also nicely fit the time (2008) and place.
"Good People" is the sort of production one would expect to find at an established professional theater such as South Coast Repertory. The show marks this column's first visit to the Chance, but definitely not the last.
If You Go
What: "Good People"
When: Through May 20; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays
Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
Cost: $25 to $35
Information: (714) 455-4212 or chancetheater.com.