By Sandi Durell
David Rabe is one of the 20th Century’s great writers of important issues of the day . . . Good for Otto (inspired by Richard O’Connor’s book “Undoing Depression”) a prime example of the frustrations, complications and realities of dealing with mental illness. But find humor he does with an all-star cast in The New Group’s three hour creation directed by Scott Elliott.
The stage is set as a bleak mental health facility somewhere in the Berkshire Mountains, chairs line three sides where the patients sit (along with some audience members), two rolling chairs situated center (Derek McLane, set design). The patients who come for therapy cover a gamut of illnesses as they explore, break down and fight for survival. In charge is Dr. Robert Michaels (the low key, ever churning Ed Harris) who endeavors to maintain both his own and the clinic’s survival in a sometimes surreal atmosphere. Working alongside him is therapist Evangeline Ryder (the intense but humorous Amy Madigan).
The troubled outpatients, a rainbow of personalities, each get their turn in therapy sessions where problems unfold at rapid pace, the solutions dismal, but listening is the name of the game. And there’s music. Dr. Michaels is a firm believer – never under estimate the power of music . . . so when the going gets rough. . . everybody sing–“On Moonlight Bay” to “Carolina in the Morning.” He deals with his dead mother (Charlotte Hope), who committed suicide when he was a young boy, continually fighting his own demons as she appears in his mind, accusing, berating, eager to bring him into her world.
Young Frannie (a sensational Rileigh McDonald) cuts herself with paper clips to escape her swirling mind – the ‘storms’ that bind her, as she sits on the edge of psychotic depression, her foster mother Nora (Rhea Perlman) fearful that she will commit suicide.
An uncaring insurance company bureaucrat Marcy (Nancy Giles) holds the key to Frannie’s survival but the endless paperwork, procedures and approval required provide no help as Frannie sinks deeper and deeper and further away from reality; Dr. Michael’s sensible pleas going nowhere as he lashes out at Marcy. The scene brings on audience chuckles that break the discomfort and truths of fighting the system. He feels a special kinship to Frannie and is ready to break all the rules and just take her home with him. It’s heart-wrenching watching Frannie and Dr. Michaels as he desperately tries to save her. But they can always hide behind a tune as they sing “Glow Worm.”
Dropping into the clinic is Barnard (the effusive and disarming F. Murray Abraham) whose wife suggests he should seek help since he can barely get out of bed each day. Once he begins the process of talking with Evangeline, he is unable to stop questioning every word and thought or acknowledge who might really be responsible for his problems.
The lonely, highly nervous and desperate Alex (Maulik Pancholy) comes to unburden himself and admit his homosexuality to Evangeline thinking he has made a liason in a bar with an imaginary lover. She suggests Paxol.
Jerome (Kenny Mellman – also at the piano) collects boxes and can’t seem to make order in the house he shares with his mother (Laura Esterman) as he attempts, for months, to move into the basement apartment.
Jane (Kate Buddeke) tries to find solace understanding why her dead son Jimmy (Michael Rabe) shot himself . . . his now dead figure explaining reactions to an ex-wife, and saying it was easy, the rifle was there.
And there’s borderline autistic Timothy (a loveable Mark Linn-Baker) who must learn better social interaction, providing the more humorous moments. He is also very attached to his pet hamster Otto (responsible for the play’s title), sadly his only friend about to undergo surgery for a blockage in his stomach. He is engagingly charming in his love for his pet when happily reporting Otto has come through surgery, repeating Otto’s motto . . . “Fortune favors the brave.”
Lily Gladstone plays an office administrator and rounds out the cast.
The take away . . . it takes a lot to be brave, especially those under mental siege, to fight the battles, to seek wisdom, help and climb the ladder of survival.
Photos: Monique Carboni
Good for Otto – The New Group, Alice Griffin Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42 Street, NYC ) – run time: 3 hours, 212 279-4200 thru April 8. www.thenewgroup.org