By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It may be hogging all the attention, but Spider-Man isn't the only show getting its world premiere on Broadway this spring. On February 8, previews begin for David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, making it the rare play to hit the Rialto without a test run.
That puts Lindsay-Abaire in a small club of writers, and it puts the play itself under unique scrutiny. "Right to Broadway," the playwright quips. "How stupid is that?"
In many ways, of course, the opening of Good People---a class comedy about a scrappy south Boston woman who crashes the home of a wealthy friend---is the same as any other. "Every [playwriting] process is sort of the same: You get in there, you rehearse, you try to figure it out, and then you put it in front of an audience," says Lindsay-Abaire. "It's more people's perceptions of it. It's a 'Broadway play.' I'm thrilled to be on Broadway, but I'm putting a baby in front of an audience, whether it's on Broadway or an off-Off-Broadway theatre."
Still, those perceptions are hard to ignore. Broadway shows get more media attention, and because the tickets cost more, they tend to generate an expectation of "excellence." Plus, if Manhattan Theatre Club were presenting the show in one of its Off-Broadway houses, it might not have lured Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons to the cast, and it certainly wouldn't be eligible for Tony Awards.
Those factors raise the play's profile with the public and with theatres that might want to produce it later. That's why productions so rarely come to Broadway without being tested downtown, out of town, or in a workshop.
As Lindsay-Abaire notes, "Usually there's that safety net. 'Okay, that was so informative and so useful. Now I understand the play. Let me now fix it before it goes to Broadway.' This is, 'No, no, you don't get any of that. Figure it out now in the room.'"
But the show wouldn't be happening if Lindsay-Abaire hadn't figured things out before. He wrote the books for the Rialto musicals High Fidelity and Shrek, and in 2006 he made his Broadway debut with Rabbit Hole, a drama about a couple waking up from the grief of losing a child. That play only had one workshop production before Manhattan Theatre Club took it to the Biltmore Theatre, and it went on to receive the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Nicole Kidman just received a 2011 Oscar nomination for starring in the film version, which Lindsay-Abaire also wrote.)
At the time, the scribe felt nervous about Rabbit Hole debut, but not so much because it was on Broadway. Until then, he'd written wild comedies like Fuddy Meers, about an amnesiac whose husband may be a murderer. "Now I was writing a more naturalistic, straight-forward drama," he recalls. "That felt like, 'Holy cow, what am I doing here?' more than 'Holy cow, I'm on Broadway.' They were all tied together, but I was much more scared about the other part of it."
Once again, he feels more urgency about the content of his new play than the theatre where it's being produced. He's a native of south Boston, so the characters in Good People, with their dark humor and their class resentment, are drawn directly from his life.
"I was interested in this myth that anyone in America can accomplish anything if they just work hard enough," he says. "I never felt ready to write about that. I felt like I wanted to write responsibly about these people that I know and love deeply and make sure I didn't condescend to them."
That's one reason Good People is more in line with Rabbit Hole than with Lindsay-Abaire's earlier work. "There's a judgment on those comedies sometimes," he explains. "The people that disliked them really hated them. They thought, 'Oh, this is an absurdist, nonsensical play that I have no use for.' I would never want these characters to be dismissed in the same way. They can be dismissed for other reasons, but not because of, 'Well, they're just silly people. They're not real people.'"
David Lindsay-Abaire is a member of TDF's Artists Council, a group of professional artists who advocate for the theatre.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor