New York City Theater
"Good for Otto"
Pershing Square Signature Center
“There’s simply and always the problem of being human,” says empathetic, confused, haunted Dr. Michaels at the start of “Good for Otto,” David Rabe’s lengthy, overstuffed, occasionally moving drama about, well, being human. That condition takes in all the foibles, all the hopes and dreams, all the well-meaning jabs and efforts to save those who hurt. Amid memories of old songs (“Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “On Moonlight Bay,” ”Carolina in the Morning”) that are like a group hug, patients and their counselors in a fictional New England mental health center work toward an “impossible reality.”
Anyone who’s ever had therapy will recognize the situation, the delving into the past, the client-counselor dynamic, the baby steps towards health, the unexpected breakthroughs, the bureaucratic nonsense. Rabe, author of tough plays about people trying to make sense of their existences, here is mellow, compassionate and a bit squishy though still angry.
Lacking the misery of “In the Boom Boom Room,” the destruction of “Streamers, the terrors of “Sticks and Bones” or the drugged-out characters of “Hurlyburly,” his new work points toward salvation. Less a microcosm of a decaying America than those other works, “Good for Otto” offers hope, perhaps because it was inspired by material from Richard O’Connor’s “Undoing Depression.”
Rabe, whose wife, actress Jill Clayburgh, died not long ago, may be trying to come to terms with his own understandable depression. Whatever the impetus, he’s created a colorful, deeply felt cast of characters which the actors (with one glaring exception) bring to individualized life though they flit in and out of the action, unsustained by a dramatic arc.
Ed Harris is strong as the noble but harried and insecure Dr. Michaels while Amy Madigan plays a doctor who never seems to have enough time. Torn between her duties and her search for privacy, Madigan emphasizes the character’s gnawing doubts. These are psychiatrists with their own, ill-defined troubles.
F. Murray Abraham as a fitful man who retreats from life to his bed and Mark Linn-Baker as an autistic child in a man’s body, have never been better. As a strange youngster, Frannie, Rileigh McDonald has the difficult, near-impossible task of switching from one stormy personality to another.
In a large cast, Rhea Perlman stands out as a frustrated foster mother, as does the great Laura Esterman as a woman trying to remain calm. Esterman has that gift of portraying a placid outside covering up a grit-your-teeth inside. Arriving late, Maulik Pancholy is touching as a troubled gay man.
Not effective at all is Charlotte Hope as the specter of Dr. Michaels’ dead Mom. Her scenes, important because they explicate his neuroses, are entirely without intensity.
Scott Elliott’s direction emphasizes the intangible subtleties that underlie what could seem mere science, though he’s stymied by the writing’s lack of coherence. Spare is the word for Derek McLane’s set, Jeff Coiter’s lights and Jeff Mahshie’s costumes. Having some audience members sit among the actors reinforces a “we’re all in this together” meme.
Rabe’s characters are in search of their real, not fake selves. But what is real for them blossoms in increments. Ghosts are exorcised, insights come without warning and salvation is sweet because unexpected. It’s all there but diffuse and unrealized.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 12, 2018