After a long absence, David Rabe (Hurlyburly, Streamers, Sticks and Bones) is back. Unlike those famous, high-energy attack plays, Good for Otto finds Rabe in a meditative mood, contemplating sadness and madness.
A psychiatric therapist, Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris) invites us to imagine him lying in bed, still half asleep; this drowsy scene frames the dreamscape of the play, as he reviews the work before and behind him, the patients he worries about, the frustrations of the job in a mental health center plagued by insurance company paperwork and doubletalk (represented by Lily Gladstone). Dr. Michaels tells us: "Because in spite of the bucolic countryside, in spite of the sky, the trails, the lakes, pain is plentiful here. Twenty-first century Americans in the land of plenty. But there's money problems; family and work pressure. Autism. O.C.D. Alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse. Being young. Getting old. It all sits hidden in our little world of bright skies, bright lakes, and tall trees. And then finally, of course, there's simply and always the problem of being human." The play, it will turn out, is far more philosophical than psychological; Rabe, as he always has been, is interested in big ideas.
Dr. Michaels' colleague, another therapist (Amy Madigan), shares the institution's burdens. As we watch them interact with patients, we realize the doctors' helplessness, as patients want them to know what can't be known. We also share the patients' irritation at their helplessness, the mannered style, cutting off a patient in mid-sentence with, "To be continued," and the easy solution of Paxil. Given "the problem of being human," we also begin to wonder, as Dr. Michaels does, as some of the patients do, if there is any help to be had. Beckett's famous first line, "Nothing to be done," springs to mind.
We get to know Barnard (the superb F. Murray Abraham), who finds lovely relief from his morbid despair in an old photograph of his mother. Mothers are central to all of these cases: how Jimmy (Michael Rabe) killed himself with a shotgun as his mother (Kate Buddeke) waits in the next room to hear him say goodnight; little tormented Frannie (the remarkably good Rileigh McDonald), who is obsessed with her criminally negligent birth mother and whose foster mother (Rhea Perlman) is at her wit's end; Jerome (Kenny Mellman), whose boxes of stuff keep him from moving out of his mother's apartment; Alex (Maulik Pancholy), who is parentless and thus unconnected to anyone; his discovery that "your why is not my why" is profound in that it reveals a universal truth; endearing, autistic Timothy (the excellent Mark Linn-Baker), who is worried about his hamster, the Otto of the play's title, whose treadmill is a nicely glanced-at commentary on life as we live it.
The play's most compelling mother is Dr. Michaels' mother (the beautiful, silvery-voiced Charlotte Hope), whose suicide when he was nine years old left him, despite all his psychiatric training, haunted by her. His only easeful relief is a weekly singalong, although the charming moments of the cast singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" don't quite work to provide audience relief — maybe if we were invited to sing, too, it would cheer us up.
Like many contemporary plays, Good for Otto is largely narrated and so only partially dramatized, adding to its leisurely quality, piling on details that only sometimes pay off. As is obvious from the list of 14 characters, there is too much stuffed into this rambling, overlong play. Scott Elliott's direction doesn't find a way to make it taut and give it more punch, leaving us awash in human gloom, despite Otto's motto: "Fortune favors the brave."
Good for Otto. Extended through April 8 at the The New Group at Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $85-125. Information: 212-279-4200.