By Stanford Friedman
Strength in numbers seems to be the motto for The New Group this season. First, they assembled a 17 member ensemble that brought Jerry Springer – The Opera back to life. And now they have gathered a star studded cast of 14 to take a whack at David Rabe’s 2015 drama, Good for Otto. There are numerous sparkling performances to be found here, but unfortunately they often get lost in a work that is fractured, overly long, and saddled with more than a few bouts of navel-gazing. Where the Jerry Springer team pulled together to raise a show above its material, the fine actors in Otto are pulled apart by a script that wanders.
The play is inspired by the real-life experiences of psychotherapist Richard O’Connor as chronicled in his book, Undoing Depression. The seed of the work sprouted in 1999 when Rabe dramatized some of the material from that book to aid in a fundraiser for O’Connor’s mental health clinic in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Rabe felt that the piece had growth potential, nonetheless it remained in a drawer until 2015, when he collaborated with Chicago’s Gift Theatre to create this more fully realized version, one that combines the playwright’s own fictional characters and O’Connor’s non-fiction encounters, rife with mother issues, suicidal tendencies and failed insurance claims.
O’Connor, transformed into the fictionalized Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), introduces himself in the opening scene with a monologue that Thornton Wilder might have written had Our Town been set in the Berkshires with a Stage Manager plagued by inner conflict. We soon learn that the physical geography of the town that he describes is inconsequential, much of the play is actually set in the mind of Michaels. This gives lighting designer Jeff Croiter the opportunity to wash the stage in dim blue hues, and lets some of the many mental patients intermingle in a way that reality would forbid. It also allows the good doctor to mourn his mom (Charlotte Hope). Still youthful in his memory, she is not so much a haunting ghost as she is a partner in helping him deal with his patients’ grief. For reasons that must have more to do with factual accuracy than dramatic structure, the play also follows the tribulations and sessions of a second therapist, Evangeline Ryder (Harris’s long-time acting partner, and wife, Amy Madigan). While it is a treat to see the two actors commiserate and cooperate, the dual storylines lessen the pathos of each other’s tale by half.
The roll call of patients that drop by the clinic, sit in with Dr. Ryder and/or intrude upon Dr. Michaels’s psyche is vast; some find closure, some remain troubled, some merely fade from the playwright’s attention. Twelve year old Frannie (Rileigh McDonald) is haunted by internal “storms,” leaving her foster mom, Nora (Rhea Perlman), helpless. McDonald is chilling in the role, but several of her scenes prove repetitive. Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is an old man, confused by blurry visions and fighting compulsions to never get out of bed. Abraham, master craftsman that he is, conveys a lifetime of experiences with a pause or the slow movement of his arm. Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker) is a middle aged man with autism and a sick hamster named Otto. Linn-Baker brings compassion and laughs. In a play with several endings, his is one of the more joyous. He certainly fares better than Jerome (Kenny Mellman) whose battle with OCD is sidelined, and Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a seemingly sensitive young man who turns screwy when he goes off his meds.
Director Scott Elliott and his team throw in a variety of odd tricks to punctuate the action. These include various outbreaks of song, a highly random use of snow, and seating a couple dozen audience members on stage. This, no doubt, provides an intimate experience for them, but for the rest of the audience it creates a visual that is hard to interpret. A circle of friends? A crowd of crazies? Still and all, a cluttered Rabe play is better than no Rabe play. One of the most important theater voices of the Vietnam era, he is among the very few 70-or-older American playwrights still in the game. May his 78th year bring good health, and renewed focus.
Good for Otto – By David Rabe; Directed by Scott Elliott.
WITH: F. Murray Abraham (Barnard), Kate Buddeke (Jane), Laura Esterman (Mrs. Garland/Terersa), Nancy Giles (Marci), Lily Gladstone (Denise), Ed Harris (Dr. Michaels), Charlotte Hope (Mom), Mark Linn-Baker (Timothy), Amy Madigan (Evangeline), Rileigh McDonald (Frannie), Kenny Mellman (Jerome), Maulik Pancholy (Alex), Rhea Perlman (Nora) and Michael Rabe (Jimmy).
Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen and Original Music by Kenny Mellman. Production Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson. The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200, https://www.thenewgroup.org/goodforotto.html. Through April 8. Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes.