Yale Rep's GOOD GOODS is pretty good

Jacques Lamarre

Three stars

As a critic, one of my first reviewing assignments was August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. A later work by the preeminent African American playwright, I found the play to be so laden with symbolism and too much history on its back that it groaned under the weight. As I cracked the playbill at the world premiere of Christina Anderson’s Good Goods, it was my turn to groan to find the time of the story as “1961 and 1994. And everything in between. Time is layered, stacked, mixed and matched.” The setting is “A small town/village that doesn’t appear on any map. You have to know about it to get to it...” My first thought, “Uh oh.” Second thought, “How long is this thing?”

Turns out my fears were unfounded, for the most part. My feelings about Good Goods are layered, stacked, mixed and matched. Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of this new work by a recent Yale School of Drama alum shows an intriguing new playwright at the start of what one hopes will be a long and exciting career. The play is fascinating, funny and promising in many regards. It certainly is a better play than Gem of the Ocean. Like that forebear, Good Goods exhibits a need for greater focus and trimming. Oftentimes, that is what a good director can bring to the party with a new play, and Anderson has a great director in Tina Landau. Unfortunately, Landau does not help hone Good Goods into something, well, great great.

So, what is Good Goods about? A bit hard to say as the plot is complex and there are some things that are quite obtuse. I hesitate to spend too much time synopsizing the piece as one of the joys of the play is watching its many twists, turns and surprises. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it a drama? Yes. In a sentence:  prodigal son returns to a factory town to run his father’s store after the patriarch has split. Simple, right? What ensues involves a love triangle, stand-up comedy, a mysterious invasion, jealousy, voodoo, a factory belching blue smoke, and spirit possession.

As with Gem of the Ocean, symbolism and magic realism abound. Good Goods has plenty of “Huh?” moments, but Landau keeps things moving fast and Anderson keeps things funny. Did the layered, stacked, mixed, matched time period make a difference? No. Did the indistinct location listed in the playbill register? No, and neither did much of the cited inspirations and sources listed in the playwright’s notebook in the program. I didn’t buy everything that was served in this peppery gumbo, but it was always flavorful.

The cast is top-notch, particularly the women. De’adra Aziza as the curvy, manipulative and bawdy Patricia is a delight. Angela Lewis delivers a fantastic performance as Sunny, the goofy, seeming innocent who undergoes an Act 2 transformation that will not be spoiled here. The men render solid performances with Marc Damon Johnson leading the pack with a funny, engaging turn as Truth, a longtime clerk in the Good Goods shop.

As always, Yale Rep delivers an expertly designed production. The set by James Schuette follows the mash-up approach of the playwright. The store has an old-timey feel with a menacing, modernist factory looming in the background (another similarity found in Gem of the Ocean). The sound by Junghoon Pi sends the banging of African drums ponging around the theater.

Good Goods at Yale Repertory Theatre is worth the trip to New Haven if you go with an open mind and a willingness to indulge the playwright’s far-ranging pursuits. It will be interesting to see how the play and playwright progress as art and artist in the future. We may not know when that will be as time is layered, stacked, mixed and matched and it could happen at a theatre that won’t appear on any map.

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