The cast of ‘Good for Otto.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni)
By Ryan Leeds
One in five adults—more than 40 million Americans—are suffering from a mental health condition according to recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health. Since 2002, the percentage of those taking antidepressants has skyrocketed by 65 percent. What was once a misunderstood and taboo topic has found its way into the spotlight and most recently made headlines once again relating to the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Fortunately, people are talking, the social stigma is dissipating, and efforts are being made to understand and treat mental illness.
Unfortunately, Good for Otto will do little to further this conversation.
David Rabe’s epic new play about depression, which opened last week at the Pershing Square Signature Center is scheduled to run for six weeks. Coincidentally, six weeks is approximately the length of time you’ll feel like you’ve been trapped in your seat once the lights dim. The three-hour saga drags on through two weary acts. I hoped that at some point theatrical redemption would be found. I left empty-handed.
Inspired by Richard O’Conner’s book, Undoing Depression, Rabe’s sprawling drama initially premiered in 2015 at Chicago’s Gift Theatre and—likely given the playwright’s fine reputation—transferred to New York where it is being presented by The New Group.
Good for Otto boasts a large cast of familiar stage and screen faces. Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, Mark Linn-Baker and F. Murray Abraham are but a few of this 14-member cast who have the Herculean task of making this play palatable to audiences who have become accustomed to the 90-minute-no-intermission speed of theater. Not that this is a prerequisite to a great theatrical experience. Plays can be as long or as short as the playwright deems necessary, but it might help if they induced self-reflection or were cohesive and interesting. With that in mind, could someone please find a good editor for Mr. Rabe?
Ed Harris leads the talented ensemble as Dr. Michaels, a successful counselor and chief administrator of the Northwood Mental Health Center. The facility resides in Connecticut near the Berkshires. Michaels is joined by Evangeline Ryder (Madigan), another professional at the center. Together, the pair attempts to comfort its residents’ unease and anxiety.
There is Jerome (Kenny Mellman), a jittery soul who insists on moving boxes into his new apartment. Jane (Kate Buddeke), an exasperated mother whose troubled son Jimmy (Michael Rabe) decided that shooting himself with a twelve gauge in his mother’s home would end his life’s problems. Timothy (Mark-Linn Baker) is one of the more endearing patients here. He is a special needs case with a pet hamster named Otto. With pending intestine surgery, Timothy is beside himself with worry by how Otto will fare through the ordeal. Murray Abraham portrays Barnard, an older gentleman who isn’t depressed but is “77 years old and feels empty.” His wife Teresa (Laura Esterman) is angry because he refuses to get out of bed. Nora (Rhea Perlman) reaches her wits’ end by how to manage the depressive bouts experienced her 12-year-old daughter, Frannie (Rileigh McDonald).
Everyone in this drama has moments in which to flex his or her fine acting chops. Yet they have significantly little interaction with one another, aside from sing-alongs to standards like, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Glow-worm.” Mellman (who was half of the quirky and fantastic downtown duo Kiki and Herb) accompanies the group seated at an onstage piano. The tunes tie-in with Michaels’ confession that he gathers on a weekly basis to sing these old chestnuts; having his patients join is merely a fantasy in his mind. I must confess to numerous fantasies as I sat through a recent performance, many of which involved escaping my plight and/or thinking about food.
One ultimately wishes for fully realized humanity and a more in-depth connection. Rabe frames his work with such promise in Dr. Michaels’ opening monologue:
In spite of the bucolic countryside… pain is plentiful here… There’s money problems; family and work pressure. Autism. O. C. D. Alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse. Being young. Getting old… of course, there’s simply and always the problem of being human.
Yet for all of the poignancy in his language, there exists a void of relatability and connectedness in the material and towards these disparate characters. The result feels clinical and unemotional.
The verdict seems to be that life is best for the hamster in a wheel… unaware of life’s problems and free from stress. With that insight, I should have instead ordered Chinese food and read my fortune cookie.
Good for Otto
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th), NYC
Through April 8
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.