Wednesday, March 21, 2018

183 (2017-2018): Review: GOOD FOR OTTO (seen March 20, 2018)

"Nest of Cuckoos"

Mental illness has provided theatrical bread and butter since the Greeks. In recent years, not a season has passed without several plays about dementia, Alzheimer’s, or the autism spectrum. And, at least since the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark, psychotherapists have been dramatic staples, usually in supporting roles but often, as in Equus, principle ones.
Ed Harris and company. Photo: Monique Carboni. 
Given the nature of traditional therapy—the analysand speaking and the analyst listening—such sessions are hard to dramatize. One successful example was the TV series “In Therapy,” starring Gabriel Byrne, which found compelling ways to express the drama in the interactions between a shrink and his patients.
Ed Harris, Lily Gladstone. Photo: Monique Carboni.
David Rabe’s (Sticks and Bones, Streamers) dramatically inert Good for Otto deals with multiple cases of mental illness; despite being set in a mental health facility, though, it represents no threat to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Originally seen in Chicago in 2015, and now in a starry New Group production directed by Scott Ellis at the Pershing Square Signature Center, it’s based on Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Depression. It also shares with “In Therapy” the idea of a therapist battling his own demons while struggling to handle the disparate patients under his care.
Rileigh McDonald, Rhea Perlman, Ed Harris. Photo: Monique Carboni.
At the beginning, the central character, Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris, who can do no wrong even in roles as bland as this one), laments directly to us that it may be the 21st century in the land of plenty, but we still must deal with “money problems; family and work pressure. Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse. Being young. Getting old.” But neither Dr. Michaels nor his patients are sufficiently lifelike or interesting to make an evening in their company especially illuminating.
Amy Madigan, F. Murray Abraham. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The locale is the fictional Northwood Mental Health Center in the Berkshires, represented by Derek McClane’s setting of an all-purpose room painted in institutional green and gray, and functionally well-lit by Jeff Croiter. Several rolling desk chairs occupy center stage when needed, as in the therapy scenes; at other times, they’re sent speeding off into the wings or rapidly revolved for dramatic effect.
Nancy Giles, Rhea Perlman, Rileigh McDonald, Ed Harris. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Two rows of the Signature’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre have been removed to thrust the stage forward. The only reason, it would seem, is so they can be replaced by two rows of cheaper (I hope) upstage seats from which audience members, along with several cast members, have the privilege of watching the actors’ backs.
Amy Madigan, Maulk Pancholy. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As is so common nowadays, other actors are seated at either side, ready to quickly join the action when needed. Kenny Mellman, who plays Jerome, a long-haired, long-bearded patient, also contributed the show’s original music; once Jerome’s problem with boxes and his overbearing mother (Laura Esterman) is dealt with, he sits behind an upright piano. There, he’s sometimes called on to play old-time songs (like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “On Moonlight Bay”) that Dr. Michael appears to consider important mood enhancers.   
Ed Harris, Laura Esterman, Kenny Mellman. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Michael Rabe, Ed Harris, Kate  Buddeke. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The play, if that’s what we must call it, is little more than three, tedious hours of an interweaving set of brief therapy sessions introducing the problems of a series of disturbed persons who come to the center for help. First, we hear from Jane (Kate Buddeke), who tells of her headaches in the wake of her son, Jimmy (Michael Rabe), blowing his brains out. She then practically vanishes (but must sit quietly watching) as we view more extended, if not particularly unusual, cases.
Mark Linn-Baker, Ed Harris. Photo: Monique Carboni.
As the sessions proceed, Dr. Michaels and Dr. Evangeline Ryder (Amy Madigan), his equally hardworking and devoted colleague, use their skills to respond to Barnard (the great F. Murray Abraham, making a shallow role richly satisfying), a depressed, 77-year-old man with a penchant for philosophically oriented books like I and Thou, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and The Tao of Physics; Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker, sweetly pathetic), a childlike, middle-aged, socially awkward man preoccupied with his ailing pet hamster, Otto; Alex (Maulik Pancholy, buried in stereotypical mannerisms and nervous tics), a young, effeminate, gay man unable to deal with his sexuality; and Frannie (Rileigh McDonald, excellent in a tough role that could become one-note), a 12-year-old cutter with suicidal tendencies and a problematic relationship with her worried foster mother, Nora (Rhea Perlman, sincerely maternal).
Amy Madigan, F. Murray Abraham. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Charlotte Hope, Ed Harris. Photo: Monique Carboni. 
Meanwhile, Dr. Michaels keeps drifting off into painful reveries surrounding his memories of his needling mother (Charlotte Hope, too girlish for the role), who killed herself when he was nine, and whose ghost keeps haunting him. Fortunately, Dr. Ryder’s personal issues remain unexamined but Madigan makes her seem about as real as the undeveloped role could ask for; she makes even Dr. Ryder’s habit of ending her sessions with “To be continued” sound honest.
Rileigh McDonald, Ed Harris, Charlotte Hope. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Only in one scene, when Dr. Michaels engages in a frustrating phone call with Jane (Nancy Giles, perfectly obtuse), an insurance agency bureaucrat, does Good for Otto suggest the stronger play that might have been, one that more directly exposes and lambastes the inadequacies of our health care system and its inability to serve the people fairly.
Charlotte Hope, Rileigh McDonald. Photo: Monique Carboni.
 I’m sorry my granddaughter, who’s about to enter a program to become a mental health counselor, won’t be able to see Good for Otto; that’s because its big takeaway is its emphasis on the enormous burden dedicated health care professionals carry in trying to do their best in a heartless system. Putting that aside, I think I’m ready for a revival of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


The Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 15