The man behind the curtain

On stage in "Good People": (from left) Sharon Alexander, Denise Whelan, Julie Czarnecki, Jered McLenigan.
On stage in "Good People": (from left) Sharon Alexander, Denise Whelan, Julie Czarnecki, Jered McLenigan. (MARK GARVIN)

Writer of "Oz the Great and Powerful" on the big screen and "Good People," playing at the Walnut, David Lindsay-Abaire has found success by harvesting what haunts him.

Posted: March 22, 2013

Welcome to the perfect lives of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.

He's the 43-year-old screenwriter of mainstream films including the current Oz The Great and Powerful and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Rabbit Hole. In recent ventures he has worked with the best of both worlds - Frances McDormand on Broadway and Nicole Kidman in film. He lives in a sprawling Victorian house in Brooklyn with his wife Christine (beautiful) and two children (delightful). He would appear to have left his hardscrabble South Boston upbringing far behind.

Does that make him anything like the leading male character in his play Good People, now playing at the Walnut Street Theatre? The successful Boston fertility doctor who transcended his own working-class past but left a trail of wreckage behind him?

On stage, as in Lindsay-Abaire's own life, perfect lives are less than cute. Though he's in a more enviable place than most of his characters, he is wired to write about what he fears most. And though he hasn't experienced the tragedies that occur in some of his plays, it's still not an easy way to live.

Good People, for one, touches on what haunts many who achieve success: What if your life is a house of cards that collapses when the wrong person walks through the door?

"I could easily be the manager of a Dollar Store," said the mostly upbeat, outgoing playwright one recent day over coffee on the top floor of his house. "There were kids in my school who were just as smart as I was and had just as much hope to make more of their lives. I recognize that luck played a huge role in my life."

He does have "why me?" moments: "All the time. Good and bad. Every day."

At age 11, he won a prep school scholarship thanks to educators who recognized his smarts and went out of their way to help him. Then came Sarah Lawrence College, the Juilliard School, and workshops with the best in the business, leading to his first hit, a surreal 1999 comedy titled Fuddy Meers.

Since then, he has produced a body of work that crosses a lot of lines for a single writer. Rabbit Hole (2006) was a realistic drama about a couple dealing with their child's death. Shrek the Musical in 2009 was, well, Shrek the Musical. He was essentially a script doctor for Oz, and takes credit mostly for expanding one of the Flying Monkey roles. Amid all that, Good People, which opened on Broadway in 2011, was another step toward serious drama, but also came from a need to honor the toughness and dark humor of those he grew up with in the neighborhood called "Southie."

Not that he could avoid them with today's social media: "It's very odd to get a Facebook friend request from people who tried to beat you up in back of the Boys Club."

The response to Good People has been the sort that reminds playwrights they often don't know what they've wrought.

As specific as it is to Southie, Lindsay-Abaire has talked to people from Philadelphia, Seattle, and Houston who swear they know smart, downtrodden counterparts to Margie. The play's main character, she's fired from her job and facing possible homelessness for herself and her disabled adult daughter when, in desperation, she seeks out the long-ago, now-successful boyfriend who may be her child's father.

One surprise is how Lindsay-Abaire makes audiences fear for the condescending ex - perhaps guilt about their own success? And even that is relative: One such audience member, he says, "wasn't rich and didn't have a great job. But she wasn't in jail, on drugs, or dead. And that was enough."

Also remarkable is how Margie's character changes from actress to actress. YouTube excerpts of Frances McDormand in the original New York cast show a tougher-than-tough survivor; at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, she was on the verge of a breakdown. Walnut Street Theatre's Julie Czarnecki finds that inconceivable: "It's crucial to remember that it's a comedy, and playing it is about allowing the humor to resonate."

In a similar fashion, Nicole Kidman gave radically different emotional slants in multiple takes of the same scene in the 2010 film version of Rabbit Hole, suggesting great leeway within the framework of Lindsay-Abaire's writing.

But as much as he welcomes a broad range of interpretation, there are limits. Rabbit Hole may not be his highest-profile film, but it's the only one that actually used the script he wrote. Usually, he looks at the final cut saying, "Oh, those three lines are mine. Half of that scene is mine . . . ."

That's why the film he's most looking forward to is an adaptation of the book The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, again in a small-scale production with Kidman, whom he describes as "the nicest person you could meet." He anticipates more Southie plays, but is currently working on a comedy.

So he is indeed a moving target. What fear is fueling that? "Falling out of favor," he says. "There is something cyclical that happens. Look at [playwrights] Edward Albee and Horton Foote," who've gone in and out of fashion. "That's the life of any artist."

As I leave, he cautions about navigating his under-construction front porch. Floorboards were pulled up, revealing beams many decades old. Just like his plays.

More Information

Good People

Through April 28 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10-$65. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact culture critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Theater Good People Through April 28 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10-$65. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.cq

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|