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Theatre in Review: Good for Otto (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Amy Madigan, Maulik Pancholy. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Ever since Sigmund Freud told Bertha Pappenheim to lie down and take a load off her mind, dramatists and filmmakers have struggled with how to portray the therapeutic process. The short answer is, you can't, at least not without falsifying it. Sometimes, the results have been rather fun: In Lady in the Dark, Moss Hart turned his heroine's sexual conflicts into a series of production numbers. In the Hitchcock film Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman holds sessions with Gregory Peck while downhill skiing, the latter having a major breakthrough as he schusses down a mountainside. (He also has nightmares designed by Salvador Dali!) Then again, these works were relatively benign: Think of Angie Dickinson getting chopped up by Michael Caine, her doctor, in Dressed to Kill. Even more recent films, such as The Prince of Tides, A Beautiful Mind, and A Dangerous Method, present the analytic process as a series of shattering revelations accompanied by emotional outbursts and night sweats, with dramatically recovered memories resulting in cures delivered in record time. Not for them the long, slow process of getting to know oneself and one's feelings.

It's hard to think of any stage dramas from the last few decades that try to grapple with psychotherapy, partly, I suspect, because it is out of fashion with today's playwrights. (There was the moderately popular HBO series In Treatment, but, in its rigorous devotion to reality, it required one to show up anywhere from one to five times a week; for that much work, you may as well go into analysis yourself.) That's why Good for Otto is such an anomaly in the current theatrical landscape: It's a serious -- and lengthy -- drama about the experiences of two therapists and their legions of patients. The playwright, David Rabe, doesn't trivialize the subject, nor has he indulged in any of the antics listed above. But, once again, the subject proves intractable; Rabe wrestles with it honorably, but to a standstill.

At times, Good for Otto seems bent on going wrong in every way imaginable. The central characters, Dr. Michaels and his colleague, Evangeline, have such a heavy caseload that the patients crowd each other out, never holding the stage long enough to grab one's full attention. The scenes featuring Kate Buddeke as a mother whose son (Michael Rabe, the playwright's son) commits suicide could easily be cut; both performers are fine, but their story is too truncated to make an impression. Another unhappy family duo -- Laura Esterman as a classic smothering parent and Kenny Mellman as her clinging offspring -- plays, jarringly, like an old Nichols and May sketch; it, too, is brought up only to be dropped. (It is not the last time that an off-putting strain of cutesiness will be introduced.) When Maulik Pancholy turns up, early in Act II, as one of the more severe closet cases of our time, your heart might sink a little at the prospect of the playwright picking at yet another loose plot thread.

The problem of focus has another aspect: Dr. Michaels appears at first to be the main character, the portal through which we will see the play's action. This is borne out by a number of (rather twee) fantasy sequences featuring him and his patients singing such old chestnuts as "On Moonlight Bay" and "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" -- interludes designed, I suppose, to stress that the doctor is a humanist, not a cold clinician. Michaels is also plagued by visions of his late mother, a classic 1960s desperate housewife, who killed herself when he was nine. (This tragedy is used, reductively, to explain Michaels' intense devotion to his patients.) But, just as we settle into the idea of Michaels as our guide for the evening, Evangeline starts to steal focus, her scenes written in a more conventional omniscient point of view. Moving as it does from case to case, doctor to doctor, fantasy to reality, Good for Otto never really finds a center of gravity from which it can confidently make its points.

And there's the inescapable fact that long, drawn-out scenes of people rambling on about themselves, often seemingly without a point, are difficult, if not impossible, to make compelling. Whatever else you can say about the first act of Good for Otto, it is the opposite of drama. The second act picks up a bit, as two or three cases arrive at crisis points, and, in a powerful confrontation, Michaels furiously denounces insurance providers that don't provide desperately needed care, but none of these is strong enough to anchor this often scattered, skittish collection of scenes.

Scott Elliott's production is loaded with good actors, all of whom perform as well as their roles will allow. As Michaels, Ed Harris is a model of clinical concern, visibly fighting the impulse to go beyond the traditional doctor-patient relationship. He spars, bruisingly, with Nancy Giles, who offers a series of satin-smooth evasions as a by-the-book insurance company representative, but he struggles when facing off against Charlotte Hope, who strains, embarrassingly, at evoking a feeling of ice-cold sophistication as the shade of his boozy, depressed mother. Amy Madigan puts her best poker face to use as Evangeline, whose apparent clinical detachment masks a furious devotion to her work. F. Murray Abraham is excellent company as a retiree who, suddenly, doesn't want to get out of bed, and who resents Evangeline's attempts at guiding him back to his feelings about his mother. Mark Linn-Baker, in a role he could deliver via Skype, takes some of the whimsy out of the role of Timothy, who appears to be on the autism spectrum -- the script is never explicit -- and whose chief relationship is with his pet hamster, the Otto of the title. Despite his late arrival, Pancholy makes something arresting out of his troubled young gay man, whose problems, arguably, are made worse by Evangeline prescribing Paxil. Rhea Perlman does her best with the underwritten role of a foster mother who has begun to fear the violently self-destructive little girl she is planning to adopt; an entire play could be built around this situation, which seems to exist mostly to illustrate Michaels' frustration over a patient he can't save.

The production design has it peculiar aspects. Michaels and Evangeline appear to run a practice in suburban Connecticut consisting entirely of outpatients -- so why has Derek McLane come up with a forbiddingly institutional interior? (It looks like the asylum to which Olivia de Havilland is committed in The Snake Pit.) The effect of it is ameliorated considerably by Jeff Croiter's lighting, which uses a variety of color washes in the windows -- which are also outlined in white LED tape -- to suggest a number of emotional and psychological states. Jeff Mahshie's costumes are solid. The sound design, by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, includes a memorable gunshot.

Good for Otto ends on a note of community, with yet another group sing of "On Moonlight Bay," at which point it's hard not to feel that the actors are having a better time than the audience. The play is based on the book Undoing Depressions: What Therapy Doesn't Teach You and What Medication Can't Give You, by Richard O'Connor, a psychotherapist. Translating such a non-fiction work into theatre is certainly a challenging task; It is, perhaps, not too surprising that Rabe has been unable to find a dramatic framework for it. -- David Barbour


(9 March 2018)

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