Monday, October 26, 2015

A Rabe Review: 'Good for Otto' Surveys Great Psychological Challenges, One at a Time -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Good for Otto
a world premiere play
by David Rabe
The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 22

Over the past 15 years, I have attended hundreds of plays by hundreds of playwrights, but until Sunday afternoon, not one by David Rabe.

Yet his is a name I've known longer than almost any dramatist, as I acutely remember having seen ads in the Chicago Tribune for Streamers, which would have been in 1977, and probably for Hurlyburly in the mid-80s as well (it was first produced at the Goodman Theatre in 1984, with a rather remarkable cast).

I vaguely remember something of--at least per my fledgling perception--a David vs. David thing going on, as David Mamet was having major success around that time as well. 

David Rabe
But although I've now seen several of Mamet's plays, and his movies, local productions of Streamers, Hurlyburly, In the Boom Boom Room, Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavel Hummel and other acclaimed Rabe works either haven't been presented or failed to capture my attention and/or interest in the years since I started paying great attention to the Chicago theater scene. (For the record, productions of Streamers and Hurlyburly were staged at the Gift Theatre in 2008 and 2006, respectively.)

So I'm certainly no David Rabe acolyte, but even just in reading of his Tony awards & nominations on Wikipedia, and the Tribune's Chris Jones calling him "justly one of the most revered American dramatic writers of the both century," let alone my own longstanding-if-scant recollections, I can appreciate the rather big deal it is for the Gift Theatre--Chicago's smallest Equity theater, with under 50 seats--to be staging the world premiere of his newest play, Good for Otto.

Jones did a nice job of explaining how this came about, and especially after he awarded the show 4 stars (out of 4), I feel lucky to have gotten a ticket.

Aside from the seeing-Springteen-try-out-new-material-in-a-tiny-club aspect to it, Good for Otto is an estimable work that helps one understand the challenges involved in both seeking and providing effective mental health treatment.

Even if, possibly due to missing any symbiosis with previous Rabe plays, I seemingly wasn't as wowed as Jones--I agree a bit more with the first part of what he calls a "messy, difficult, in-need-of-cutting, thoroughly wonderful play" than effusively with the latter--it was well-worth my time, if at a full 3 hours, a bit too much of it.

The new drama is based in large part on a book called Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn't Teach You and Medication Can't Give You by psychotherapist Richard O'Connor of the  Northwest Center for Family Services and Mental Health in Torrington, CT, for whom Rabe participated in a 1999 fundraiser that (if I understand correctly) included a staged reading of what became a fragment of Good for Otto

Per Jones' explanatory article, the reading "starred Meryl Streep, Sam Waterston, the late Edward Herrmann and Jill Clayburgh, the playwright's late wife," who died in 2010.

Set at a mental health center in similarly pastoral surroundings in the Berkshires, with Torrington fictionalized as Harrington, Good for Otto--the title references a pet of one of the patients--centers around Dr. Robert Michaels (John Gawlik), said to be loosely based on O'Connor. 

With 14 other characters sharing performance space smaller than many a residential living room--with audience members on both sides--Rabe, director Michael Patrick Thornton and designer Courtney O'Neill niftily cover a lot of ground without a lot of literal ground to cover. (I admired the way some elevated cubbyholes were utilized.)

But over the course of 3 hours, minus a 10-minute intermission, the person Dr. Michaels speaks to most is his mother (Brittany Burch), who committed suicide when he was 9. This gives the piece something of an ethereal quality, that probes the therapist's psyche via his haunted past, but I found this aspect much less riveting than the in-the-moment therapy sessions Michaels and another therapist, Evangeline Ryder (Lynda Newton), conduct with a variety of outpatients.

These include a suicidal young girl named Frannie (Caroline Heffernan), her foster mother Nora (Darci Nalepa), the slow-but-kindly Timothy (John Kelly Connelly), gawky packrat Jerome (Kenny Mihlfried), gay, frustrated and frantic Alex (Jay Worthington), struggling-for-purpose retiree Barnard (Rob Riley) and others, including a mother (Alexandra Main) whose son Jimmy (Paul D'Addario) has committed suicide.

With strong performances throughout, these glimpses into mental health counseling and the clinical/demographic diversity of those receiving assistance--with their torment often quite raw and real--made Good for Otto work best for me on something of a Hurt Locker level, taking me deep into an unfamiliar and unsettling world, with keen observations more compelling than any core narrative or message. (Interestingly, although much of Rabe's famed early works are about the Vietnam War, in which he fought, PTSD and other psychological repercussions of war don't factor acutely into this play.)

Although I had inferred from Jones' preview and review that Rabe was taking aim at how ineffectually mental health issues are dealt with (on a macro level) in 21st Century America--the play takes place in 2015--other than a few gibes about maddening insurance coverage decisions, rationales and bureaucracy, the play is much more empathetic to the challenges and the challenged than it is derisive, angry or aggrieved.

To Rabe's credit, although there seems to be too much packed into Good for Otto for its abundant insights to be appreciated with complete, cohesive acuity, its epic length never feels burdensome.

Even if I can't quite call it a masterpiece, it is nothing less than a formidable new piece by a venerated master.

And though the event of seeing an opus by a theatrical superstar squeezed into a Jefferson Park storefront made me delighted to have shared the experience at Gift--which routinely does stellar work; I'm sorry I missed their much-heralded The Royal Society of Antarctica earlier this year--don't worry too much if you're unable to shoehorn yourself in.

Good for Otto is conceivably destined for greater things--Broadway eventually seems within reason--and the somewhat unwieldy piece will likely become substantially better once it's had more time, and space, to breathe. 

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