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A CurtainUp Review
Good for Otto

I live fairly close to the Northwood Mental Health Center, where I am a counselor and chief administrator. . . pain is plentiful here. Twenty-first century Americans in the land of plenty. But there's money problems; family and work pressure. Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse. Being young. Getting old. It all sits hidden in our little world of bright skies, bright lakes, and tall trees. And then finally, of course, there's simply and always the problem of being human.
— Dr. Michaels who, like the stage manager of Our Town, serves as Good For Otto's narrator.
Good for Otto
Ed Harris and the company (Photo by Monique Carboni)
David Rabe first came to prominence with his Vietnam trilogy (the Tony Award winning Sticks and Bones,1971;The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,1972; Streamers,1976). One of the most welcoming companies for revivals as well new Rabe plays, has been the New Group (Hurly Burly. . .Sticks and Bones . . . An Early History of Fire). Currently they are premiering his latest play, Good For Otto, about an Our Town like community.

In Good For Otto, the counterpoint of Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners is a town called Harrington in the foothills of the Berkshires. Instead of a narrating stage manager who wanders the streets of the town, our narrator, Dr. Michaels spends most of the play in one of two up front and center chairs in a large room that accommodates the unfolding stories. Members of the large ensemble are either seated or hovering around the periphery throughout, and take turns coming forward, in most instances to sit in that second chair for their therapy sessions with Dr. Michaels, or his colleague Evangeline Ryder.

Derek McLane's setting is a bright enough open space with windows looking out at the pleasant landscape outside. Yet, it's the repository of the townspeople's troubles, as well as Dr. Michael's own unresolved trauma about his mother's suicide when he was nine years old.

Though fictionalized by Mr. Rabe, Dr. Michaels and the whole set-up of Good For Otto were actually inspired by psychotherapist Richard O'Connor and his work at the the Northwest Center for Family Services and Mental Health in Torrington, Connecticut and his book Undoing Depression.

If I had to sum up what Good For Otto is about in one word, it would be PAIN. The plot, if you can call it that, revolves around the way the characters we meet over the course of its three hours react to their various pain inducing experiences. Some are deeply damaged and difficult to help, some less so, and, in fact, quite comical and thus lightening this epic look at the causes and cures of depression.

The grim overall realism is further brightened with some lovely fantasy imbued musical interludes. Unfortunately, while Mr. Rabe has taken on an important subject, and managed to include the problems of funding committed caregivers like Dr. Michaels, Good for Otto tries to do too much. Probably it could lose at least half an hour by eliminating some of the less developed characters and judiciously trimming the dialogue and stage time of the major ones.

Fortunately, Scott Elliott has assembled an excellent cast that includes enough charismatic performances to make Good For Otto good enough to see despite the longueurs in this uncut version. Ed Harris captures the intense commitment, frustration with a bottom-line focused health care system, and personal sadness. His opening monologue effective sets the scene for this portrait of a town hiding the all too common darkness and pain beneath its bucolic beauty. Michaels' desperate last-ditch attempt to rescue 12-year-old Frannie (a heart-breaking Rileigh McDonald) should be seen by all the legislators ready to cut health care spending.

Amy Madigan, Harris's off-stage wife, is also forceful as co-therapist Evangeline Ryder. A scene in which her therapy involves teaching a socially inept autistic patient named Timothy (a terrifically funny and touching Mark Linn-Baker) how to handle a simple "hello" interaction is hilarious. In case you're wondering about the play's title, it comes from Timothy's relationship with his hamster.

Another actor whose character keeps those longueurs at bay is F. Murray Abraham's Barnard. He portrays a 70-year-old whose boredom with life and fear of encroaching age suddenly make him unwilling to leave his bed. Luckily, and most amusingly, coming to the Center at his wife's insistence does the trick. He loves being able to tell his stories to Evangeline, but since her listening is limited to each session he's forced to keep getting out of bed to continue.

It's easy to see how the desperately depressed Frannie intensifies Dr. Michaels' thoughts of his dead mother. However, while Charlotte Hope is fine as the ghostly mom figure, this is definitely where I found myself wishing for less of her; also wondering if the young man who shoots himself isn't just one ghost too many.

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Good for Otto by David Rabe
Inspited by the book Undoing Depression by Richard O'Connor
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Barnard), Kate Buddeke (Jane), Laura Esterman (Mrs. Garland), 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), Rhea Perlman (Nora), Maulik Pancholy (Alex) and Michael Rabe (Jimmy)
Sets:Derek McLane
Costumes:Jeff Mahshie
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Sound:Rob Millburn and Michael Bodeen
Original Music: Kenny Mellman
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 3 hours, includes 1 inermission
New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42 nd Street From 2/20/18; opening 3/08/18; closing 4/15/18. Tuesday to Friday 7:30 pm; Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 2pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/03 press preview

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