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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Goods at Crowded Fire Not Great Great, But Shows Promise

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge Yahya Abdul-Mateen II burns with midcentury intensity in a new old-school play. - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Yahya Abdul-Mateen II burns with midcentury intensity in a new old-school play.
Christina Anderson's Good Goods, now in its West Coast premiere directed by Marissa Wolf for Crowded Fire, exudes a sense of timelessness, in many senses of the word. Her play takes place in the rural South and is steeped in the rhythms of the region. All that marks the passage of time are the bells on the door of Good Goods, the local general store. Especially at the top of the play, unhurried chores dominate. Stacey (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a recently returned prodigal son, folds his clothes; Truth (David E. Moore), the long-suffering shopkeeper, goes over the books; Wire (Armando McClain), the infatuated neighbor, eats his cereal.

But it's also timeless in that you can't quite tell when this play happens. Indeed, the program says that the play has "a sliding scale in relation to time," from 1961 to 1994. Certain details date the play in the mid-century. Sunny (Lauren Spencer) is running away from a marriage her father arranged over more than a few beers; Stacey and Patty (Mollena Williams) perform a song-and-dance comedy variety act that's been on the road for eight years; not only is there a general store, but customers can place orders -- and on credit at that. Yet every time you start to ground this play in the middle of the twentieth century, latter-day anachronisms creep in. Sunny grinds when she dances. Wire goes to a bar where they "plug in" his "player." Homosexuality is repressed but not shocking; profanity has a contemporary lilt. But locating a precise time is clearly not the point. There are many areas of the country that seem to be in another time. There, hospitals are inaccessible. A bus ride can be enough to sever you from your kit and kin. Clothes that went out of style decades ago sit side by side with more recent technological devices, and vice versa. Good Goods conjures the sense of being cast adrift that comes with living in a remote, ignored town -- in any era.

Characters' own sense of time is elastic, too. The birthdays of today are forgotten, but the long dead live large in the town's collective imagination, so much so that their talismans are carried as necessary protection from real but unspecified threats and the dead take possession of the living so easily as to barely be remarkable.

Yet in still one more sense is Good Goods timeless, and that's in its old-fashioned construction. Sons vie for a departed father's esteem with the biblical quality of Arthur Miller; best friends sublimate their sexuality in a way Tennessee Williams would have recognized. It occasionally feels like an undiscovered classic, giving a taste of what it must have been like to see one of the great American mid-century plays without knowing what's going to happen.

Anderson's play won't be joining the canon just yet. It dithers in atmosphere-setting stasis for a little too long, and it suffers from overwrought exposition-y lines like, "Given that building's heavy history, I'm surprised they turned it into a pencil factory." It doesn't actually explain key background points that might have given the plot a bit more forward motion, such as what happened to the unseen father figure, and why the townsfolk believe more in ghosts, dreams and good luck charms than anything real. These unanswered, the happy ending feels false. And while the women find real warmth and personality in their roles, the male actors fail to elevate their parts to the mighty stature Anderson's script requires. The characters might have real meaning as fully realized men, but Abdul-Mateen, Moore, and McClain play them like little boys.

Still, the young Anderson shows much promise as a playwright, and Good Goods serves as a fitting connection to our past, reminding us where we've come from -- and how little we've changed.

Good Goods continues through June 23 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), S.F. Admission is $15-$35.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Lily Janiak

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