'Good for Otto': Theater Review

Monique Carboni
Ed Harris, center, and company in 'Good for Otto'

David Rabe looks at mental health issues through the patients and therapists at a rural Connecticut treatment center in this ensemble drama featuring Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, F. Murray Abraham and Rhea Perlman.

The loose trilogy of plays written by David Rabe in the years immediately following his experience as a Vietnam draftee established him as the poet of the damaged American psyche. Even his work unrelated to war, such as Hurlyburly or In the Boom Boom Room, continued to explore lives defined by emptiness, isolation, longing, confusion and profound disenchantment. His first new play produced in New York in six years, Good for Otto, remains true to those concerns as it takes in the desperate cases seeking treatment at a New England mental health center.

This is a big, meaty, monologue-driven drama that taps into a whole spectrum of disorders, sifting realism through the occasional filters of memory and imagination. It's performed by a mostly first-rate ensemble — impressive even by the standards of a playwright with a history of attracting top actors — which shares the playing space with audience members seated onstage. And it's laced with poignant passages that reinforce with eloquence and compassion the central character's early scene-setting: "Pain is plentiful here. Twenty-first century Americans in the land of plenty."

But it's also baggy and structurally monotonous, not to mention didactic and dated. The identification of its time frame and occasional references to contemporary television shows, music or the web aside, the play feels rooted in the psychotherapy language and thinking of 20 or 30 years ago — to the extent where you wonder if it might not have been more cogent as a period piece. At a full three hours, there's simply too little fresh insight or dramatic payoff here to justify the prolix handling.

First produced at the tiny Gift Theatre in Chicago in 2015, the play was inspired by the 1997 book Undoing Depression, written by psychotherapist Richard O'Connor, the longtime executive director of the Northwest Center for Family Services and Mental Health, a nonprofit clinic serving Litchfield County, Connecticut. Rabe lives in the area and has friends on the staff. He wrote the initial fragments of Good for Otto for a staged reading at a 1999 fundraiser for the center that featured Meryl Streep, Sam Waterston, Edward Hermann and the playwright's wife, Jill Clayburgh, who died in 2010.

The presumed stand-in for O'Connor is Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), a counselor and chief administrator at the Northwood Mental Health Center, which he locates for us — in the dense chunk of direct-address prose that opens the play — in the bucolic Berkshires, where people are hurting. But that microcosm competes with Michaels' mind as the drama's main setting, shuffling patient-counseling sessions with visitations from his dead mother (Charlotte Hope), who suffered from chronic depression and killed herself when Robert was 9.

While sketching in the background, Michaels also reveals his love of early 20th century popular music, and his fantasy of all his patients gathered together someplace in a peaceful sing-along. That pretty much telegraphs the play's cringe-inducing conclusion. The many shifts between designer Derek McLane's drab institutional setting, the more shadowy recesses of the past and the realm of imagination — soothing or troubling — are navigated with descriptive fluidity in Jeff Croiter's lighting, if not always in Rabe's writing.

Michaels belongs to the familiar school of shrinks whose savior complex is driven by their personal demons, and as good as the always watchable Harris is, he can't quite make the character a convincingly complex central figure. His scenes with mocking, needling Mom are literally deadening. That purple linking device (and Hope's stiff performance) is the biggest impediment to the play being more emotionally affecting.

Robert is flanked on the health care side by generally level-headed fellow therapist Evangeline Ryder (Amy Madigan); insurance company case manager Marcy (Nancy Giles), a stonewalling bureaucrat; and administrative assistant Denise. The latter is played by Lily Gladstone, so unforgettable opposite Kristen Stewart in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, but utterly wasted here, basically delivering phone messages.

Each of the patients reveals his or her problems in various sessions. They include Timothy (a disarming Mark Linn-Baker), a middle-aged man on the autism spectrum who struggles with standard social interactions and has an obsessive attachment to his pet hamster, Otto; Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), a manic 12-year-old girl in foster care with a pattern of self-harm to cope with the raging storm inside her; Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), a 77-year-old man brought in by his exasperated wife (Laura Esterman) after he inexplicably takes to his bed for weeks on end; and late in the action, Alex (Maulik Pancholy), an anxiety-ridden gay man who accepts his sexuality but is too paralyzed by shame and fear to make real connections.

In case the subtext of these lives confined to personal prisons is unclear, Kenny Mellman (late of Kiki and Herb fame) plays Jerome, a hoarder struggling to conquer his mounting collection of boxes and move two floors down into the basement, much to the vexation of his mother (Esterman again, in her second shrill caricature). With Jerome having pretty much exhausted his narrative function early on, Mellman then retreats behind the piano to hand out props or play accompaniment in those clunky song interludes.

Inadequacies in the American health care industry's treatment of mental illness are a subject that surfaces with dispiriting regularity after each new episode of shocking gun violence. So perhaps the most relevant story is that of Jane (Kate Buddeke), unable to forgive herself for failing to perceive her 34-year-old son Jimmy's despair as he said goodnight and ambled off to his bedroom to blow his brains out. In a haunting story that plays out as an isolated vignette within the larger dramatic sprawl, Jimmy (Michael Rabe, the playwright's son) recounts the details of an emotionally rough night. However, he alleges that he felt no conscious suicidal impulse until his shotgun spoke to him from the corner of the room.

The most nuanced story is Barnard's, in part because Abraham brings such bristling intelligence and droll humor to the well-read gent. His familiarity with pop-psychology self-help texts makes him impatient with Evangeline's line of questioning designed to steer him back to the remote past. By the time he concedes that she's on to something — at first begrudgingly and then with lacerating sorrow — his arc has become the most vivid and moving micro-drama of the play.

Despite the prosaic intrusions of Michaels' mother into Frannie's narrative, the raw emotionality of McDonald's performance makes her scenes compelling, building to alarming peaks of frantic anger. Rhea Perlman conveys the bewildered exhaustion of the traumatized girl's foster mother, inching toward the defeated realization that the situation is beyond her. Pancholy is terrific in Alex's nervously babbling introductory scene, but the character is shortchanged by nagging questions concerning Evangeline's mishandling of his case that make a subsequent explosive confrontation ring false.

Director Scott Elliott — who staged revivals of Rabe's Hurlyburly and Sticks and Bones — keeps things ticking along but fails to build much cohesion into a text that has moments of intense dramatic impact but overall feels too diffuse. There are urgent points being made here from the perspective of those suffering from mental illness and of those treating it in an underfunded field where objective detachment is a constant challenge, gaming the system a frequent necessity and compromise solutions often crushing.

Rabe attempts to bind it all together by borrowing a phrase from Timothy's book of proverbs, "Fortune favors the brave," suggesting that courage is a fundamental requirement on both sides of the mental health equation. But this shapeless play loses rather than gathers steam, ultimately seeming more like a docudrama patchwork with messy stitching than a satisfying, fully realized theatrical work.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Kate Buddeke, Laura Esterman, Nancy Giles, Lily Gladstone, Ed Harris, Charlotte Hope, Mark Linn-Baker, Amy Madigan, Rileigh McDonald, Kenny Mellman, Maulik Pancholy, Rhea Perlman, Michael Rabe
Director: Scott Elliott
Playwright: David Rabe, inspired by the book
Undoing Depression, by Richard O'Connor
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Music: Kenny Mellman
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by The New Group, in association with Barbara Broccoli, Lisa Matlin, Susan Rose, Fred Zollo, Paul Dalio, Bonnie Timmerman

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