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Good for Otto

David Rabe’s take on the problems of the mental health system led by Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, F. Murray Abraham and Rhea Perlman is overlong and undigested.

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Rileigh McDonald, Rhea Perlman and Ed Harris in a scene from David Rabe’s “Good for Otto” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]From the evidence presented in David Rabe’s Good for Otto, his 2015 play now having its New York premiere courtesy of The New Group, there is a good deal wrong with the mental health system. Unfortunately, the play at three hours is overlong and delivers a great deal of undigested material. Inspired by Dr. Richard O’Connor’s book Undoing Depression, Good for Otto tries to tell too many stories and wastes the talent of six major stars: husband and wife team Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, reunited Tony and Oscar Award winner F. Murray Abraham and Obie Award Winner Laura Esterman for the third time, four time Emmy winner Rhea Perlman, and Broadway star Mark Linn-Baker, along with eight other actors. Too much as is often the case turns out to be less than satisfying.

The central character is Dr. Bob Michaels (played by Harris) who is counselor and chief administrator of Northwood Mental Health Center in the town of Harrington near the Berkshire Mountains. However, the play also takes place in Dr. Michaels’ imagination where he talks to his mother, who committed suicide when he was nine, and his fantasies of his patients and staff singing popular songs of an earlier era. Aside from Dr. Michaels, we also follow the cases of Evangeline Ryder, a therapist played by Madigan. The set by Derek McLane looks like an institutional waiting room half in green, half in white, with one row of actors and two rows of audience members sitting in chairs on three sides of the stage. Two office chairs on wheels are positioned center stage as if for a conference which is where most of the play takes place.

Amy Madigan and F. Murray Abraham in a scene from David Rabe’s “Good for Otto” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

The play covers six cases which is a few too many – though several of them disappear after one brief session: Jerome, a hoarder who has not been able to move in three years due to all his boxes; Jane, suffering from the suicide of her son in his late twenties; Timothy, a paranoid loner whose closest friend is his pet hamster Otto; 12-year-old Frannie, who secretly cuts herself while her foster mother Nora attempts to adopt her away from her drug addicted mother; Barnard, a depressed patient in his seventies who can’t get out of bed most days, and Alex, a gay man who has terrible feelings of guilt and insecurity and fantasizes about relationships with total strangers. Most of these stories do not come to a conclusion but those that do are somewhat open ended. Then again, many of them have predictable and inevitable conclusions. There is no catharsis for the doctor or audience.

The real drama of the play is Dr. Michaels’ phone confrontations with Marcy, company case manager at CCI (the ironically named Colossal Care Insurance) who listens carefully and rejects all of his requests for services or monetary authorizations. These would be funny if they weren’t so shocking in their disregard of the best interests of the patients. The bottom line appears to be cost, not the health or recovery of the ill or depressed. The many short scenes with Dr. Michaels and his mother suggest the play is really about the doctor’s own problems. However, as they basically go round and round the same issue, these scenes are not very interesting. What could he have done to help his depressed mother when he was nine?

Ed Harris, Laura Esterman and Kenny Mellman in a scene from David Rabe’s “Good for Otto” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Except for the frustration level of the characters, there does not seem to be a movement towards change or catharsis which may partly explain why the play seems so long. Harris and Madigan retain their cool as therapists throughout until almost the end when they can’t hold in their emotions any more. The most dramatic story is that of 12-year-old Frannie beautifully and realistically played by young Rileigh McDonald. However, as written the role of her foster mother played by Rhea Perlman is a one-note tale and doesn’t give her much wiggle room to make it her own.

As the seventyish Barnard too depressed to get out of bed, F. Murray Abraham tells a continuing story in his sessions avoiding facing his problem throughout. Esterman is totally wasted as his wife but has a delightful scene as Mrs. Garland, the neurotic mother of Jerome (Kenny Millman), the young man who can’t throw anything out. Millman also spend the rest of the time playing the onstage upright piano (and his original music) for the singing sequences. As Timothy whose love for his hamster gives the play its title, Linn-Baker is mainly one dimensional in his character’s continual hysteria and brings little to the role.

Mark Linn-Baker and Ed Harris in a scene from David Rabe’s “Good for Otto” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Nancy Giles is off stage too much in the ironic role of the insurance company case manager, but her Marcy is so infuriating that there is only so much one can take of her recalcitrance. As the guilt-ridden gay young man who does not appear until the second act, Maulik Pancholy is unable to make much of this stereotyped and predictable role. As Dr. Michaels’ mother, Charlotte Hope’s role is never clearly defined other than as the doctor’s nemesis who won’t leave him alone.

While Jeff Coiter’s lighting design makes some beautiful transitions from various shades of pink (out the waiting room windows) to blue, it does not make McLane’s setting any less dull as a stage picture all evening. The costumes by Jeff Mahshie have the lived in look of real contemporary wear without helping to define the characters. Scott Elliott, The New Group’s artistic director, has worked both as a traffic manager for the large cast in their various arrangements on stage and in developing the competent characterizations of the patients and their mothers. Unfortunately, the characters remain as they were when we first meet them so that David Rabe’s Good for Otto feels like it has not gotten where it wants to take us. It remains a long exposé of a system in desperate need of reform.

Good for Otto (extended through April 15, 2018)

The New Group

Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: three hours including one intermission


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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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