Hoarders. Cutters. Suicides. The deluded. The psychotic. The pathologically lonely. Observers of the human condition, and even mere connoisseurs of popular culture, will recognize the mental illnesses depicted in Good for Otto, David Rabe’s epic, impassioned study of the mental gymnastics required of a dedicated psychiatrist treating a variety of patients. Despite its lack of a central plot, the New York premiere production captivates with sustained force, fully realized characters, and a cornucopia of pathos and humor.
Dr. Michaels (played by Ed Harris in yet another memorable Off-Broadway turn) may be a little too good to be true. As founder and head of a suburban psychiatric clinic, he fights persistently for effective treatment and rights for his patients, all while negotiating the legacy of his own memories of early-childhood abandonment. Along with the deliciously named therapist Evangeline Ryder (a crisply effective Amy Madigan) he battles an insurance bureaucracy, personified by Marcy, played by a coolly deadpan Nancy Giles and depressing enough to sink the noblest heart.
However beautifully scripted and acted are the good doctor’s work-life struggles, the play’s emotional core lies with his patients. A stellar cast spans the cycle of life from childhood to old age. The play’s great heartbreak is the story of Frannie (Rileigh McDonald, onetime star of Matilda on Broadway). Traceable to early trauma and abandonment but triggered mysteriously, her psychotic episodes, mania, and self-cutting drive Dr. Michaels to literal distraction from his other patients.
At the other end of the spectrum, septuagenerian Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is an intermittent depressive whose tangled search for himself digs back to wartime, and (once again) abandonment. Arch yet avuncular, self-aware, and wryly funny, Barnard exemplifies traditional psychotherapy as he and Evangeline spiral painfully toward the root of his pain.
The patients’ experiences of abandonment and other traumas resonate with the doctor’s own struggle, which is dramatized by ghostly visitations from his mother. But their stories stand firmly on their own. There’s the man (Kenny Mellman) self-trapped in his mother’s house surrounded by stacks of boxes full of unread magazines and other unfinished business, resolving and failing year after year to move out of his old room. There’s the middle-aged autistic man (an intense turn by Mark Linn-Baker) who just wants to get along, practicing social skills so he can stop scaring people. And how different is he, in the grand scheme, from the lonely young man (Maulik Pancholy) dreaming up imaginary romantic drama while trying to come to terms with his sexuality? Or the divorced young man who seems entirely put together until he looks one too many times at his rifle?
Yes, there’s a gun. And a piano, and singing. Fantasy mingles with reality and Dr. Michaels acts as a kind of magician, conjuring his patients into a dream chorus, taking comfort in controlling his own imagination while so much else remains out of his hands.
I have a confession. It’s a fantasy I have. On the weekends, on Saturday nights, I belong to this group that gets together – has a beer or two and sings old songs. Songs going way back into the forties. Even the nineteen twenties. Really old ones…We sing and it calms me. Soothes me after the week. Now that’s not the fantasy, of course, since I actually do it. The fantasy is that I like to imagine all my patients doing something similar sometimes – all singing together – I don’t know where they are – some place…
As Harris depicts him, we can’t help feeling his warmth and sympathizing with his frustrations. Even the much cooler Evangeline succumbs to the old doctor’s sheer humanity in her final, revelatory scene.
Instead of a single overarching plot the play buffets us from patient to patient, crisis to crisis, and dream sequence to real-life therapy. Artifice this skillful glows with a heightened authenticity. A long play that doesn’t feel long, Good for Otto, inspired by Richard O’Connor’s book Undoing Depression and directed by Scott Elliott for The New Group, is at the Pershing Square Signature Center, now extended until April 8.