at the theatre: beautiful burnout & good people

And we’re off!  The first two shows of the spring season come with impeccable pedigrees: Beautiful Burnout arrives via Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland – the same people behind the widely acclaimed Black Watch, while Good People is the latest effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.  While the subject matters of these plays couldn’t be more disparate – Beautiful Burnout is a sensorial descent into the world of amateur Glasgow boxers, Good People is a realistic Southie drama of living with the choices you didn’t make -side by side is a good way to view them: they’re textbook examples of how to tell a story – and how not-to.  As the program notes state, Burnout was conceived by Assembly’s Steven Hoggett and written by Tony-nominated playwright Bryony (Frozen) Lavery. Instigated by Hoggett’s observation of young boxers at Gleason’s Gym, “he became intrigued with both the beauty and brutality in the movement and distress of the live boxers.”  Sounds interesting, no?  If only the working class youth seeking transcendence in the ring of this mish-mash of 80’s-inspired dance drama and pseudo-inspirational clap trap had half a chance at escape.  (Intermissionless, the audience has zero chance.)  You can’t blame the actors, who bravely endure a forced march of cardio acrobatics. Dancing to a series of ridiculous sound and video-scapes or sweating through the training drills inflicted on them by their instructor, this cast deserves a commendation for such committed physicality. Ms. Lavery, on the other hand, deserves a one-two punch to the body. She hasn’t written a play so much as strung together a series of truisms book-ended by a grieving mother at the wash. Substituting misguided conceptual posturing to disguise a total lack of basic storytelling skills creates artifice, not art. Long story short: boy wants to be a boxer, boy  eats crisps and trains to be a boxer, boy gets hit and becomes a side of mash and veg; disco plays, mother grieves; audience desperately waits for the bell.  If Ms. Lavery had any sense about her she’d head over to Manhattan Theatre Club.  Though better known for importing second-rate plays from London, MTC got lucky a few years ago with a small production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s  Fuddy Meers. It was fortuitous for the playwright as well. He found an artistic home that’s gone on to produce each of his subsequent plays.  Known for quirky characters and genre-twisting plots, Lindsay-Abaire took a decided turn in his last work, Rabbit Hole.  A realistic exploration of a man and wife shattered by the grief over their dead child, it won the Pulitzer Prize, establishing the playwright as a “serious” writer.  In Good People, Lindsay-Abaire continues to mine this new-found penchant for realism and strikes a greater gold by finding the right balance of comedy and tragedy in the moral dilemmas of people forced to hang-on tooth and nail in troubled economic times. Facing eviction and scrambling to catch a break, Margie (the estimable Frances McDormand) thinks an old high school fling who’s made it out of South Boston might be her ticket to a fresh start. All she wants is a leg-up on a job but an imagined slight leads to a surprise visit ripe with  resentment, blackmail, and a dubious bomb or two about paternity. I won’t give away any more plot except to say that to complicate things he’s “lace curtain” Irish, with an African-American wife to boot.  Part of the excitement of the play is following the unexpected developments, the oh-no-she-didn’t-say-that moments, the moral inversions, and the fallout from Marge’s incessant foot-in-mouth.  Nothing is simple in Lindsay-Abaire’s world and that’s how it should be.  We’re all good people, really.  And sometimes, we slip.


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