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Madness is red meat for playwrights. In the disjointed ravings of Ophelia, Lear, and Edgar-as-Poor-Tom, Shakespeare gives himself permission to go avant-garde amid the iambs. Tennessee Williams built a career on erotic neurotics, and, more recently, Quiara Alegría Hudes mapped the path from trauma to healing in Water by the Spoonful. What would dramatists do without the certifiable or merely eccentric? David Rabe takes a gentler, humane — but still poetical — approach in his community mosaic Good for Otto. Casting a benevolent eye over disturbed townspeople in the Berkshires and the doctors trying to help them, the play delivers multiple perspectives on damage as the human condition.
Somewhat like in the advice-column weepie Tiny Beautiful Things (at the Public Theater just over a year ago), Rabe gives voice to ordinary people buckling under hideous levels of stress, grief, and repressed emotion. The action is focused, ostensibly, on a mental health clinic in the fictional Connecticut town of Harrington, but we’re also peeking inside the crowded head of Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), the stoic shrink who serves as our (fairly) reliable narrator. (The play was inspired by Undoing Depression, a book by Connecticut therapist Richard O’Connor.) Spotlit center stage, the trim Harris, face chiseled and careworn, describes the civic features of the town and himself lying in bed pre-dawn, unable to sleep with patients’ voices gabbing at him. “Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse. Sexual abuse,” he muses. “Being young. Getting old. It all sits hidden in our little world of bright skies, bright lakes, and tall trees.”
In the three hours that follow, Rabe adopts a loose-jointed, unabashedly shaggy approach, gliding from monologue to fantasy to therapy session and even sing-along by the actors, who are seated in and among a section of audience on the stage itself. Scott Elliott’s fluid, transparent direction gives the affair an agreeably psychiatric Our Town vibe. The drably generic turquoise tiling and mismatched chairs of Derek McLane’s institutional set acquires instant warmth from an eclectic but lovable ensemble who wanders in and out of frame.
What prevents Otto from becoming a predictable parade of case studies or medical-show clichés is, first, Rabe’s vivid, punchy prose, but also the New Group production’s outstanding cast. The deliciously wry Amy Madigan plays Evangeline, a slightly cold-blooded colleague of Dr. Michaels, who likes to end her sessions with a banal “To be continued.” The expression tends to irritate depressive septuagenarian Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), a retired businessman and autodidact who spends weeks refusing to get out of bed. Barnard is staring into the abyss of death and has unfinished business that goes back to infancy. Evangeline also treats Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker), a middle-aged man on the autism spectrum, whose ailing hamster, Otto, gives the play its title.
One of Dr. Michaels’s most harrowing cases is that of twelve-year-old Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), an abused girl in foster care who cuts herself and speaks darkly about storms inside her head. Then there’s Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a painfully self-conscious gay man who spins romantic delusions about total strangers. On the (relatively) lighter side, there’s obsessive-compulsive Jerome (Kenny Mellman), who can’t break away from his domineering mother (Laura Esterman). At the terminal end of psychic phenomena is Jimmy (Michael Rabe), a young motorcycle enthusiast who delivers a chillingly matter-of-fact monologue about his suicide.
As if this cornucopia of misery weren’t enough, Good for Otto turns out to be three plays rolled into one. First, it’s a suite of patient portraits, as detailed above. It’s also “physician, heal thyself,” psychodrama, in the parts when Dr. Michaels confronts the jeering, toxic ghost of his dead mother (Charlotte Hope), who flits around the edges of the action, belittling her son’s ability to help anyone. Lastly, it’s a study of how insurance companies, with their inhuman cost-cutting and Kafkaesque case workers, may actually undo the healing process. Unfortunately, those last two genres — the dead-mom story and the institutional-critique angle — are the weakest strands of the script. The former may result from the casting of an actress who looks too young and doesn’t have the heft to play a truly demonic matriarch. The latter is simply too easy (and large) a target — that insurance companies screw over the vulnerable is news to no one. But then, Rabe has always pursued a maximalist agenda, from the trippy Vietnam family shocker Sticks and Bones (revived by the New Group in 2014) to the endless absurdist banter of Goose and Tomtom and the coked-up Hollywood blowhards of Hurlyburly.
So, the script could use a few cuts, and a crucial role is miscast. However, the cumulative force of Rabe’s deep, searching empathy, combined with the sheer variety of human experience on view, is impressive. Elliott coaxes a dozen fine-grained performances from the ensemble. Pancholy runs a shockingly convincing gamut from bubbly ingénue to embittered loner. Linn-Baker’s Asperger affectations are honestly funny yet dignified. Madigan and Harris combine grit, frustration, and spunky altruism. Mellman’s slightly flat, nasal delivery is perfect — and his work on the piano’s not shabby, either (what would you expect from Herb of Kiki & Herb?). And then there’s F. Murray Abraham: Can any other actor make his text sound as if it were custom-written for him? Does anyone else have his speed, pressure, musicality — that lightly devastating way of tossing off the telling detail? I’d pay to see him read the DSM-5.