David Rabe never shies away from lifting heavy furniture. His early successes addressed the horrors and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, in which he served; his magnum opus, Hurlyburly, explores the hedonistic excesses of Hollywood in the go-go 1980s through a drug-fueled, veristic lens. Now in the twilight of his career, he aims to take on the psychiatric profession with Good for Otto, an intriguing but uneven play receiving an intriguing but uneven production from The New Group.
Rabe filters his observations about the mental health industry through Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), a sympathetic counsellor at a safety-net facility in the Berkshires. His clients live on the ragged edge of rural poverty, a state that leaves many ill-equipped to understand the gravity of their psychological shortcomings. Dr. Michaels also struggles with what could be called the inciting incident of his psychiatric career: the suicide of his mother (played as a spectral figure by the mercurial and intensely watchable Charlotte Hope) when he was a boy. The playwright hints that Dr. Michaels never overcame this tragedy; his profession is also a coping mechanism.
This ground has been trod before, but Harris excels at making Dr. Michaels a compelling, sympathetic figure. The more interesting question, though, is whether his life experience makes him a good psychiatrist. Rabe confidently explores this question, and some of the best moments of the long, vignette-laden play allow us to see how the central figure brings his life experience to his work. These moments often unfold in the form of sessions between Dr. Michaels and his patients.
An early encounter with Jane (Kate Buddeke), a woman who has lost her son to suicide, shows a capacity for empathy without pity. Buddeke perfectly captures the ethos of a tough-as-nails woman whose small but tidy world has been rocked to its core. Michael Rabe, the playwright’s son, is deeply affecting as the dead young man, who can’t seem to reconcile his actions any better than his mother. Together, Harris, Buddeke, and Rabe show how people who have experienced tragedy can work towards closure even when they are left with as many questions as answers.
Rabe also introduces a moving through-line involving Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), a twelve-year-old foster child whose already difficult existence has been compounded by ever-growing signs of extreme mental illness. McDonald may be giving the most utterly convincing child performance I’ve ever seen; she fearlessly works herself up to the fever-pitch levels that Frannie describes when the “storms of darkness” overtake her mind. It’s clear that Dr. Michaels, a former trouble child himself, identifies with her. Rabe uses this recognition to work through some of Dr. Michaels’s demons; when he floats the idea of adopting the troubled girl, it comes across as a belated attempt to correct his own childhood.
Other elements in Frannie’s story don’t quite coalesce, though, and Rhea Perlman seems miscast as her well-meaning but inept foster mother, Nora. (The role is severely underwritten, and Rabe fails to fully define the tempestuous relationship between Frannie and Nora). This speaks to a larger problem within the play: in attempting to offer a wide scope of a complicated topic, Rabe often bites off more than he can chew. Characters and conditions remain underdeveloped while the playwright spends an inordinate amount of time focused on facile aspects. Do we really need multiple scene of Dr. Michaels arguing with an insurance representative, played by Nancy Giles, to understand that the system is draconian?
Other characters lean heavily into stereotypes. These are often the purview of Evangeline (Amy Madigan), Dr. Michaels’s colleague — a role that itself is also frustratingly underwritten. F. Murray Abraham portrays an old man who feels that he’s outlived his utility. Although the great actor approaches his several monologues with gusto, the role adds little to the important conversation surrounding age-induced depression. More problematically, Rabe’s conception of a gay character (played by Maulik Pancholy) reinforces stereotypes of queer men as unstable, vindictive, and potentially dangerous. It’s a missed opportunity to explore how some gay men still feel trapped by the closet in an ever-expanding society, but I’m not sure a hypermasculine writer like Rabe can tell that story.
The play also includes a character named Timothy who is meant to be on the autism spectrum. (The title is a reference to Timothy’s beloved pet hamster). Timothy desires to “widen his circle,” and Evangeline works with him to better understand social cues and how to interact with strangers. It struck me as a rather simplistic portrayal of neurodiversity, and although Mark Linn-Baker’s performance doesn’t feel cheap, the casting of a neurotypical actor in a neurodiverse role seems like a missed opportunity — especially as our understanding of the need for accurate representation in the theater grows.
Scott Elliott’s production vacillates between realism and performative awareness, and these two styles don’t always mesh well. The actors remain onstage almost continuously; several audience members are also seated onstage, in a configuration that blends performers and civilians. (The set, by Derek McLane, recalls a sterile waiting room, with white-tiled walls and outdated furniture). To me, this suggests that some of the characters may exist primarily in Dr. Michaels’s mind — his mother, for sure, and perhaps some of his more fantastical patients.
This view is furthered by the script’s inclusion of popular American standards, which the cast perform extradiegetically. It’s unsettling to have a tense scene broken by “Carolina in the Morning,” but it makes sense if it represents an attempt by Dr. Michaels to reclaim a happy moment in his youth — perhaps his being sung to by his mother. (It seems no accident that nearly all the songs are mid-century, when the character would have been a boy). But the play’s original music, composed by Kenny Mellman (who also plays an agoraphobic hoarder), calls to mind television movie tropes: the need to define serious moments with jagged, foreboding noise.
And that, perhaps, is the overall problem with Good for Otto. Rabe shows that even at seventy-seven, he still has much to say; he doesn’t always seem to know how to say it. Like his flawed but compelling protagonist, he conquers the demons he can but leaves more than a few on the table.
Good for Otto runs to April 15, 2018. More production info can be found here.