Entertainment » Theatre

Good for Otto

by Maya Phillips
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Mar 12, 2018
A scene from "Good for Otto."
A scene from "Good for Otto."  

The realities of mental illness -- addiction, medication, self-harm, abuse, inaccessibility of care and treatment options -- don't often come with easy answers or tidy resolutions. Instead, each story is particular to its individual and their circumstances, and more often than not, each person is just trying to take each day at a time. That's the sentiment at the heart of The New Group's "Good for Otto," which is having its New York premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Written by David Rabe and directed by Scott Elliot, "Good for Otto" presents a cross-section of life as seen through sessions two therapists, Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris) and Evangeline (Amy Madigan), have with their patients in a mental health center.

At the center of the play is Dr. Michaels, whose desire to help his patients may at least partially derive from his own complicated feelings about his deceased mother (Charlotte Hope), who comes back to haunt him throughout. While Dr. Michaels focuses his attention on trying to save a young girl who's dangerously close to being lost to the system, he also imagines cheerier, singsong alternatives to the realities he and his patients face. Harris' Dr. Michaels is wonderfully engaging and grounded but not without his own guilt and fears, and his shifts into the imaginary spaces where his patients happily sing rounds of "Moonlight Bay" show him at his most empathetic.

But there is no shortage of impressive talent in the cast, including Madigan, though underserved by the underwritten Evangeline; F. Murray Abraham as a particularly funny and sympathetic patient caught up in his existential worries; Maulik Pancholy as a patient struggling with both his mania and his sexual identity; Rileigh McDonald as a young patient who spirals out into fits of self-harm and destruction; Rhea Perlman as her exhausted and exasperated foster mother; and Mark Linn-Baker as the awkward, developmentally disabled man whose pet hamster, Otto, gives the play its name.

Though there are more afflicted townsfolk to speak of, the main problem of "Good for Otto" -- which is more loosely episodic than narrative in form -- is its uneven approach to its characters, some of whom appear immediately, only to be forgotten, while others don't show up until halfway through. Still, others sit on the sidelines throughout so the necessity of their presence in the play at all seems questionable. With a runtime that clocks in at nearly three hours long with intermission, the play's unnecessary excesses and lack of narrative focus are certainly felt.

"Good for Otto" has its few breakthrough moments, when characters come to realizations or connect with each other in real ways, in the real world, but outside of those instances, each character struggles with being isolated in his or her own world, with his or her own griefs or anxieties or afflictions. The play never provides any resolutions for its characters; indeed, mental illness is not so simply resolved. Still, the play suddenly ends in a way that's underwhelming at best and at worst fails to honor the beginnings of an emotional arc that it created in Dr. Michaels' character.

The staging, a bland room with frosted windows, pale blue walls and a tile floor, on which sit rows of waiting room chairs, effectively creates the bleak, utilitarian feel of a medical center, while the lighting shifts temperamentally from cold fluorescents to ecstatic purples and blues to match the shifts in tone, perspective and setting, particularly when we move in and out of Dr. Michaels' imagination.

"Good for Otto" unpacks "craziness" in a way that goes beyond the reductive or cliché, instead embracing the more nuanced notion that people struggle in different ways, to different degrees, and sometimes there isn't an easy way to overcome it. And while the cast and staging do well to invite us into this world, ultimately "Good for Otto" ultimately overextends itself and overstays its welcome.

"Good for Otto" is playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., through April 8. For tickets or more information, visit www.thenewgroup.org or call 212-279-4200.

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