I have to put this into perspective for you. I've just moved into temporary living quarters (in the aftermath of a firefighting floodout). I am without surcease dealing with new landlords, insurance adjusters, various peripheral companies, and I am consequently so many weeks behind in my work that I can, in my more paranoid moments, see my career dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer. And the Friday I was scheduled to see Peter Hedges' new play "Good as New" at the MCC Theatre had been particularly exhausting. Seven o'clock rolled around and--may the cyber-cops forgive me, I have to put it this way--I did not fucking want to leave the apartment. And did so with only the greatest reluctance and the heaviest sense of obligation.
So when I tell you that "Good as New" is, thus far, the best play of the season, possibly to be equaled elsewhere, but surely not to be topped, understand that my enthusiasm is not hyperbolic or in any way generous. I was not an "easy sell" that night, and "Good as New" knocked me flat on my ass.
And I'm not sure I want to tell you why.
It's not that I can't...it's that "Good as New" is so brilliantly constructed, so meticulous in its use of language, symbolism and metaphor, so consistently surprising, so roaringly funny, and ultimately heartbreaking--featuring, on top of everything else, three flawlessly written roles for three splendid actors (which it has)--that I'm loathe to spoil it. Any of it.
No, it's not any kind of thriller, it's a non-genre family play, and as such, it's legitimate fodder for fairly open summarization here and elsewhere--but my recommendation--my strong recommendation--is that you experience it cold, with no expectations, as I did. You need know merely that it's directed like a tone poem by Brian Mertes and that the trio of actors--John Spencer (best known as Tommy Mullaney on "L.A. Law"), Jennifer Dundas and Laura Esterman--are in many respects giving the performances of their lives.
That said, I am a critic, and a certain thoughtful analysis is required, and there is the regional audience to consider, so I'll be more specific below, in italics. But if you have any chance of seeing the play at all, skip what follows...and skip instead to the MCC Theatre...
When we meet Dennis, a lawyer (Mr. Spencer) and his teenage daughter Maggie (Jennifer Dundas), she is driving him to the airport. She is a just-beginning driver, insecure and overcautious, reciting safety instructions like mantras at times, lest she veer and be responsible for a crash. Her father remains encouraging, proud and even amused. Clearly, he adores her; clearly too, he is her hero. They talk about many things except her mother, whom they have just visited at the hospital. For some reason, this is a sore subject for Maggie.
In the second scene, Maggie is driving her mother, Jan (Ms. Esterman) home from the hospital, and we learn what Maggie's problem is: Jan has just had a facelift (purple bruises surround her eyes and adorn her cheeks, the procedure is that fresh)--eradicating the evidence of her having lived and violating Maggie's noble but terribly teenage notions of truth. But truth to Jan is a much more slippery object; she tries to explain this to Maggie, but Maggie, full of righteous indignation, keeps baiting her, until she lets slip her fear that Dennis might be having an affair. And now Maggie is rocked. She did not, after all, as her mother remarks, see her dad actually get on the plane.
So in the third scene--the last one in the car--Maggie has picked Dennis up at the airport. He hadn't expected it. He finds it sweet and winning...which Maggie hates, because of course it was nothing of the kind, it was a way of confirming that he had really taken a trip, that he had really gotten off a plane, that he wasn't really having an affair. Once Dennis gets that information out of her--it takes some negotiating--he indicates that he is not the only parent who has "wandered." And now Maggie is doubly rocked.
Act Two takes place in their home...the parents' bedroom, to be precise. Where the consequences of the revelations begin to unravel.
The marvel of Hedges' play--among many--is that this is not a dysfunctional family. All its members, however, have secrets (even Maggie), and Hedges suggests that people are entitled to their secrets. Conversely, he also suggests that dishonesty has its price too. Because ultimately what he's showing us is that, unlike in driving, there is no straight path toward the "right way" in maintaining the equilibrium of a family or a relationship. There are wrong turns--and people will take them. The irony of the play--set up in its opening image--is that Maggie, whose grasp of truth is so absolute, sets the wheels in motion. Even metaphorically, she's driving the car. The subtlety of the play is that this is never articulated, she is never blamed. The only crime of which any of these characters can be accused, really, is being human.
There's more to be said about the play's use of metaphor and symbolism, but perhaps the most telling thing is that it doesn't become apparent what the playwright has really done, on a structural level, until after the play is over, and you begin thinking about it, whereupon it becomes richer and truly amazing to contemplate. Furthermore, Mr. Hedges has written three luminescent roles...not one line in the play ever strikes a false note...especially impressive in the case of Maggie's role: the earnest idealism of a confused and determined 16 year old girl has been captured here without condescension or caricature.
If "Good as New" has any flaw, I suppose it might be a certain trendiness to its topical references. I hate the idea of this play becoming dated--even deceptively. Because it deserves to be around a long, long time. Here's hoping...
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