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Good for Otto

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 8, 2018

Ed Harris and the Cast
Photo by Monique Carboni

"Fortune favors the brave!" is the way one hopeful character puts it in David Rabe's Good for Otto, a masterwork about the care and treatment of mental illness, written by a playwright at the top of his game and being presented in a commanding production by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

The "brave," in this case, are the walking wounded of everyday life. They are, perhaps, less explosively dramatic cousins of the damaged souls in Rabe's Vietnam War plays, like Sticks and Bones which The New Group presented in a scathing revival a couple of years back. But they are the real thing, these strivers who show up in a sad and endless procession to the mental health center for sessions with one of two therapists: Evangeline (Amy Madigan) and Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), who also serves as the play's narrator.

Mr. Rabe has much to share over the course of three hours, about the patients, about their families and caregivers, and about the heartless insurance industry, represented here by the play's hissable villain, the "guidelines"-oriented Marcy (Nancy Giles) who rejects Dr. Michaels' efforts to hospitalize a dangerously lost and suicidal 12-year-old girl, Frannie (Rileigh McDonald, giving a heart-wrenching performance).

The play, which is based on the book Undoing Depression by psychotherapist Richard O'Connor, is filled with richly portrayed characters. Frannie's story is, by its nature, the most harrowing one. We learn enough of Frannie's background to understand the likely source of her problems, and we also see the impact on her foster mom, played with a sense of desperate urgency by Rhea Perlman. But even with those in less dire straits, what comes shining through is their humanity and their heroic efforts to simply put one foot in front of the other. Most memorable among these are Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a young gay man consumed by loneliness; Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), an older man who can barely drag himself out of bed to face each day; and, especially, Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker, giving a terrific performance), who is on the autism spectrum and is working with Evangeline to learn better social skills. ("I'd like to widen my circle," he explains, and then poignantly adds, "Do I have a circle?") The "Otto" of the title relates to Timothy's story, and the optimistic quote, the one about fortune favoring the brave, is his personal rallying cry.

This being a David Rabe play, don't expect everything to unfold naturalistically. From time to time, there are forays into expressionistic fantasy, not so much in the minds of the patients, as you might expect, but in the imagination of Dr. Michaels. To lighten his own psychic load, he conjures up images of his clients getting together to engage in sing-alongs of upbeat old tunes, like "Moonlight Bay" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Rather than distracting from the play, these serve as refreshing breaks from the litany of problems he must deal with every day. Dr. Michaels also has a constant companion in the image and judgmental voice of his dead (by her own hand) mother (Charlotte Hope), who goads him for "trying to save everybody, like you're Jesus Christ."

Neither he nor Evangeline, who ends every session by the clock with a chirpy "to be continued," is Jesus, of course. And not all of these stories work out neatly and cleanly. Evangeline is able to help Barnard gain some self-understanding, but she misses the boat with Alex by taking the quick and dirty shortcut of psychotropic drugs that lead to a terrible meltdown. And for all his efforts to help Frannie and her foster mom, Dr. Michaels is forced to leave both of them hanging by the tiniest thread of hope. After losing the latest round in his never-ending battle with the heinous insurance agency, he must rely on 911 and pray the emergency room doctors admit Frannie to the psychiatric ward before the "storms" she is always talking about consume her altogether.

One indelible image that haunts the entire play is an experience that Evangeline relates, about being taken up to an attic room in a 200-year-old house. There she is shown a path that was worn into the floorboards "by the feet of someone walking in a circle, someone who years ago had been confined in that attic, someone with a mental illness, kept out of sight for days, months, years." A sobering thought that powerfully underscores the play's relevance; given the ongoing struggle to provide for those with mental health issues, how much progress have we really made?

This production is being helmed with an appropriately unobtrusive touch by The New Group's artistic director Scott Elliott and is blessed with a collaborative ensemble of 14 excellent actors who allow David Rabe's richly-wrought words to tell the story through them. Even Derek McLane's set design, with the faded paint on the walls and a mix of well-worn chairs spread out on three sides of the stage, tells a piece of the story of pain and hurt and courage and hope.

Good for Otto
Through April 8
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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