Sometimes you can smell a real sleeper in the press release. I don't know if anyone who isn't a critic can appreciate the chore of it that comes with the love of it, and the overwhelming inundation of press releases and invitations that papers the territory--Spring especially. You try to cover as much as you can, comprehensibly and sensibly, but finally you just have to be selective, especially about the lower profile stuff. Which means trusting your instinct, your sniffer. For me, the nose went into "hey there" mode when I saw the cast list and read the name Marj Dusay.
A lovely, sophisticated and graceful actress who has been a mainstay on episodic teevee and soaps since the mid-60s, I've always described her to people as the American equivalent of Diana Rigg--even in her youth, she had (as she has still) that kind of maturity, class, poise and versatility. What, I wondered, was she doing in an off-off Broadway venue that charged the going showcase rate of twelve bucks per fanny? A favor for a member of the creative team? Could be. Getting her stage chops back into fighting trim after too long on the tube? Maybe. But why this thing, why now. Chances are, I thought...she just plain believes in it. And she's keeping good company: actors of similar octane, Dana Reeve (Christopher's wife) and John Bedford Lloyd were also on the roster. Hmmm.
And sure enough, "Good Will" is eminently worth believing in, the kind of thing you'd expect to see at Playwrights Horizons, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public or the Vineyard when those institutions have their very best on offer. (And there was a time when it would have been elegant Broadway fodder too, but...let's not go into the land of nostalgia.)
Adapted by Joan Rater and director Tony Phelan from a novella by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley, it tells the story of Bob Miller (Lloyd) a modern day iconoclast. He lives with his wife Liz (Reeve) and their ten year old son Tommy (Michael Phelan, no relation) on a farm in Central Pennsylvania. Not a consumer farm so much as a farm for them, a self-sufficient haven in which they do everything, make their clothes, grow their produce, raise their livestock, build their furniture and manage to get by on almost no money at all. They're not hermits or misanthropic...but Bob has this vision, this powerful need to be his own man, and for the last five years it has sustained them. But now Tommy is misbehaving in school, making racist remarks he never learned at home; while Liz is discovering religion...and the center is losing its hold...
A play of masterful lyric realism, "Good Will" progresses in ways you don't expect, exploring themes that are so fresh as to be invigorating. In just about every aspect it is tasteful and provocative. And it is directed, cast and acted (rounding out the cast are Phoebe Jonas and Brenda Pressley) as subtly and thoughtfully as it is written. I'd be flabbergasted if some theatre company didn't pick it up; or if it didn't earn a transfer to off-Broadway for an open-ended run; it has that kind of resonance. Then again, I've been flabbergasted before, and I wouldn't wait. The number is above...reserve your seats.
I realize there is something cursory about this review--there's really lots more to say about "Good Will"--but what makes a sleeper all the more gratifying is the catharsis of discovery. It's a discovery I envy you. I'll leave you only this thought.
Ms. Dusay--every bit as classy, in command and beautiful as ever--doesn't enter the play until very late in the second act. She plays Liz' mother. The role lasts perhaps five minutes. And then she's gone, never to be seen again until the curtain call.
Oh yeah...that's belief...
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