'Good People' reflects playwright's Boston upbringing
In case you were wondering why you didn’t hear David Lindsay-Abaire speak at the Republican National Convention, here’s the reason: He’s not on message.
Oh, his rather remarkable life story is exactly the kind the RNC loves to tout: a kid from Boston’s hardscrabble South Boston neighborhood who goes on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The problem is that when Lindsay-Abaire tells his story, he includes all the parts about the people who helped him along the way and the remarkable opportunities that made his life possible.
Lindsay-Abaire knows that, when it comes to his career, he didn’t build it by himself.
And those are the ideas that ripple through his new play, "Good People."
The engrossing, tender drama (with laughs) follows the plight of Margie (pronounced with a hard "g," or a "hahd g," as the Southies might say), a single mom who’s just been fired from her latest poorly paying job.
Desperate, she contacts an old high school friend who’s become a doctor. As they reconnect after decades apart, the play touches on issues of personal responsibility, twists of fate, hard work and dumb luck.
"There’s this idea out there that you can accomplish anything if you just work hard enough," says Lindsay-Abaire, 42, from the home in Brooklyn, N.Y., that he shares with his wife and two kids. "You see it at the Republican National Convention. Of course, you have to work hard, but you also need opportunity, life skills and luck."
If you told 11-year-old David Lindsay-Abaire that he would become a professional playwright, he probably wouldn’t even have known what you were talking about. He was busy helping his father sell fruit out of the back of his truck. One of his father’s more frequent spots was on Huntington Avenue in Boston, where David could gaze across the street at the Huntington’s B.U. Theatre marquee – the same marquee that now bears the word "Good People" – and wonder what they were doing inside there.
But a scholarship to the Boys & Girls Club led to one of the biggest breaks of young David’s life: With the help of two counselors at the club, he landed a six-year scholarship to the prestigious Milton Academy.
"There were kids who were just as smart as I was who didn’t have that luck," he says now.
Doors opened for Lindsay-Abaire at Milton. But credit the kid for his determination, commuting to Milton and learning to deal with the cultural shock of being a generic-brand kid in an Izod world.
As ninth-graders at Milton, Lindsay-Abaire and his classmates were responsible for staging a play. It was one of playwright Christopher Durang’s pieces of mayhem.
"I had the time of my life," says Lindsay-Abaire.
The next year, the class decided they should do a 10th-grade play, and someone turned to Lindsay-Abaire and said, "And you should write it; you’re the funny one."
So The Funny One wrote the class play that year. And the next. And his senior year, just for something different, he wrote a musical.
Then it was off to Sarah Lawrence College, and, later, Julliard, where one of his professors was, yes, Christopher Durang. After he graduated from Julliard in 1998, Lindsay-Abaire wrote a hilarious play called "Fuddy Meers," and then received a remarkable invitation to go to Hollywood and write screenplays for Fox.
Just as the shine of Hollywood was beginning to dim for Lindsay-Abaire, "Fuddy Meers" was receiving strong reviews in New York. He quit his job and moved back East to pursue playwrighting.
In 2006, his play "Rabbit Hole" landed on Broadway, and the following year, it won the Pulitzer. (You can catch the film version starring Nicole Kidman on DVD.) There was a bit of a controversy about Lindsay-Abaire’s award. The Pulitzer committee threw out the three nominees – "Rabbit Hole" hadn’t even been nominated – and decided to award Lindsay-Abaire’s play instead.
"Again," he says, "luck, luck, luck."
Throughout it all, Lindsay-Abaire knew that one day he wanted to write a play about Southie.
"But I wanted to wait until I was mature enough as a writer," he says, "because I love and respect the people I grew up with so much."
Then two things happened: The economy went into the toilet and Lindsay-Abaire heard someone mention that British playwrights often write about class, but American playwrights never do.
"I thought about that for five minutes, and I decided I didn’t want to write one of those plays," he says. "But if I wrote about the Southie neighborhood, then inevitably [issues of class] would bubble up to the surface. So I started writing about someone struggling."
Lindsay-Abaire, who speaks without a hint of a Boston accent, pauses when asked how he’s been molded by his Southie roots. Then he says, "I think it’s shaped my work ethic; I work my ass off all the time. And I’m always saving up for the long cold winter," he adds with a laugh. "I think I also have the humor you see in people from Southie. Laughing through hardship – that’s in me and in my characters."
You sense Lindsay-Abaire has a particular fondness for the character of Margie in "Good People," but in terms of life story, Lindsay-Abaire is more of a match with Mike, the doctor. Both Lindsay-Abaire and Mike could have been trapped by Southie, but they worked hard and with luck, they found a life that neither one of them could probably have imagined at age 11.
"Mike wrestles with some of the things I think about – things like obligation to the old neighborhood," says Lindsay-Abaire. "But there is a difference between me and Mike. Mike thinks he succeeded simply through hard work. But I recognize every single day how lucky I am."