Not long ago, people in certain social brackets regularly peppered their conversations with updates on what was happening between themselves and their analysts. Next to stories of other peoples’ sex lives, little was more boring. More recently, such chatter seems to have abated, possibly due to the evolution of modern psychiatry. Which makes the David Rabe play Good for Otto — produced Off-Broadway by The New Group, based on psychotherapist Richard O’Connor’s book Undoing Depression — a reminder of all those talking-cure times gone by.
Anyone hearing that The New Group is mounting a Rabe play can be excused for getting their hopes up. It was this company, in 2005, that revived Rabe’s Hurlyburly, directed by Scott Elliott, with such dark élan. The hotsy-totsy cast that Elliott has assembled for this venture could easily raise such hopes even higher.
But the playwright dashes them. What’s gone wrong? Much of the play revolves around depictions of shrink sessions and it lasts for three hours, plus a blessed intermission. Two psychotherapists — Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris) and Dr. Ryder (Amy Madigan) — sit on wooden chairs with casters, successively but not successfully treating patients at a state-sponsored center. (Derek Lane’s situates rows of chairs on three sides of the stage for cast members to sit with the audience; Jeff Croiter supplies lighting; Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, sound.) Dr. Michaels is also burdened with memories of his Mom (Charlotte Hope), who died a young woman but lives on in his mind to taunt him.
Among the patients: young Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), a volatile youngster who cuts herself; Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker), whose early socialization was arrested; Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a young man uncomfortably reconciling his homosexuality; Jerome (Kenny Mellman), who often plays a spinet piano and hands out props; and Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), a 77-year-old unhappily facing older-age. Still others: guitar-playing Jimmy (Michael Rabe), who’s really dead but remembered by his grieving mother (Jane Buddeke); Denise (Lily Gladstone), a center staffer; Barnard’s wife (Laura Esterman); Marcy (Nancy Giles), an inflexible civic servant; and Nora (Rhea Perlman, who replaced Rosie O’Donnell during rehearsals), who expects to adopt Frannie but is having second thoughts.
Unseen is Otto, a hamster. It belongs to Timothy, who worries that it has been using the wheel in his cage less often than normal. What the rodent ultimately represents won’t be revealed here, but let’s just say what’s good for Otto may not be good for audience — which, after listening to Dr. Michaels and Dr. Ryder discourse over psychotic incidents, may balk at witnessing more and more analyses. It’s as painfully repetitive as real-life analysis can be.
There are also questions. For dramatic purposes, why does Frannie slap anyone attempting to help her? Why does Timothy consistently fail at exercises that are designed to help him greet strangers with a friendly “hello”? Why can’t Alex trust Dr. Ryder? (By contrast, the frustrating phone calls Dr. Michaels has with inflexible Marcy are more easily understood.) Why did Harris and Madigan agree to do this play?
The answer to all of the above and more takes an attenuated while to arrive, but it does: Rabe clearly puts no stock in psychiatry. As his not-so-subtle, overlong play plods along, he mounts an argument against the practice. By the time he’s finished, he pretty much declares outright that all that talking meant to cure will have no eventual success. He supports his conviction further by depicting Dr. Michaels as so tormented by the mother he carries in his head that he’s shown as someone who can’t wield much power over anyone else. Rabe seems so sure of his conviction that it’s a wonder he doesn’t give Dr. Ryder a few mental obstacles of her own.
By the time Good for Otto ends, audiences may wonder if Rabe has personally experienced some unyielding psychiatric consultation, or else heard too many horror stories from those analyst updates of yore.
Psychiatry hasn’t always had the most consistent or positive endorsement on stage or screen. Indeed, how it has been represented typically rests on how it is regarded by those who write about it. During the 1940s, Olivia de Havilland nabbed an Oscar for her recovery in The Snake Pit and Ingrid Bergman healed Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. There’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1960s and ’70s play and film. In the 21st century, Alice Ripley won a Tony Award after not being aided by blatantly incompetent psychiatrists in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. On HBO’s In Treatment series, which ran from 2008 to 2010, Gabriel Byrne played a psychiatrist with a troubled private life but who practiced with beneficial empathy.
One thing can be said for works dealing with psychiatry: they’re stuffed with terrific parts for actors. Good for Otto is no exception. Stalwarts Harris, Madigan, Linn-Baker, Esterman and Abraham are reliably strong. They’re especially equaled by scene-grabbers McDonald and Pancholy.
Throughout Good for Otto, Rabe finds opportunities for the characters to sing old chestnuts while Mellman, formerly of Kiki and Herb, plays on that spinet. The audience gets to hear “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” To what purpose? Music therapy? If it is, it’s more for us than for the characters, a break from the prevailing gloom.