Group Therapy off-Broadway: “Good for Otto”

Another fourth wall bites the dust in The New Group’s production of “Good for Otto,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center. David Rabe’s play, which premiered in 2015 at Chicago’s Gift Theatre, is not set in Grover’s Corners, but, we are told as the cast files into stage-perimeter seats, in the Berkshires town of Harrington, where our host, Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), is a counselor and chief administrator at Norwood Mental Health Center.

The play that follows (after a group hum) takes place in the Center’s offices and treatment rooms and in Dr. Michaels’ haunted memory bank. Acted by a superb 15-member ensemble, directed by New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott and overlong by just a few minutes at three hours, including intermission, “Good for Otto” is fascinating Theatre.

Ed Harris, pitchpipe at the ready, and the cast of “Good for Otto” [Photos: Monique Carboni]

The individually portrayed Norwood Center patients rarely interact with one another, but their back-stories and treatment regimens are linked by their sessions with the good Doc and his consulting therapist Evangeline Ryder (Amy Madigan). The play is based on material from the book “Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You” by Richard O’Connor, in which he posits that depression “is not a feeling, but the inability to feel.” (The collaboration between that source material and multi-award-winning playwright Rabe is a formidable one.)

The patients are not alone in their various stages of distress; their families are equally affected by their puzzling behaviors and breakdowns, as are even their care providers. It is as if emotional, mental and social maladjustments are contagious. Nora, for example (Rhea Perlman), is driven to distraction by the self-destructive behavior of twelve-year-old Frannie, whom she fosters and wants to adopt. Frannie’s escalating drama also inspires protective instincts in Dr. Michaels…and, via Rileigh McDonald’s stunning performance, in anyone within a half mile. Barely into her adolescence, Ms. McDonald has the acting chops of a seasoned veteran. (Playing Matilda on Broadway was just a warm-up.) Also to the point, patient Barnard’s wife Teresa (Laura Esterman) cries out “I’m going batty with this way you’re acting” because Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) refuses to get out of bed. For weeks.

Frannie (Rileigh McDonald) and Mom (Charlotte Hope) in Dr. Michaels’ reverie.

Dr. Michaels’ own psychological issues come forward in scenes with his mother – scenes that take place in his mind, since Mom had died years before under painful circumstances that are detailed late in the play. Appropriately enough, not having aged in her son’s memory, she is young, attractive, frozen in time. “Don’t you wonder what I am, really?” she asks the audience. “His mother? A ghost?” Charlotte Hope plays her wonderfully – ethereal and no-nonsense all at once. In Dr. M’s fantasy, his mother would be a comfort to Frannie; devoutly to be wished.

Title character Otto never appears. He lives with Timothy, a patient with self-control issues, played by Mark Linn-Baker, who does hyper as well as any actor ever. His distress over Otto’s impending intestinal surgery is acutely portrayed, and while Otto is a hamster (that’s not a typo), the fact of his surgery is an apt metaphor for the issues between the Center and its insurance provider, which is Rabe’s sub-text throughout. A conversation between Dr. Michaels and a Colossal Care case manager (Nancy Giles) is an indictment of this country’s health care system. Framed in amusing double-speak, it is nonetheless a searing indictment.

Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker) and Dr.Michaels (Ed Harris) in a therapy session.

As enacted by Harris and Madigan and their “patients,” the therapy sessions have the ring of authenticity. (Asked by a patient if it’s wrong to ask her a personal question, therapist Evangeline replies “It would only be wrong if I answered.”) Under Elliott’s direction, the play’s separate threads mesh into a cohesive unit, with few wasted or unnecessary exchanges. A noted exception to that is the late appearance of patient Alex, played well enough by Maulik Pancholy, but whose monologues interrupt our established interest in the others. One ends up caring about Barnard and Teresa, about Timothy, about Nora, and about all the other patients, perhaps especially about Frannie. And while it’s somewhat of a spoiler, I sense your concern, so rest easy: Otto pulls through surgery with flying colors. Good for Otto.

Through April 15 at Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC.   Tues, Thurs Fri at 7:30PM; Wed at 2 and 7:30; Sat at 2 and 8; Sun at 2PM> Tickets ($85-$135):

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Two plays, two women, one each. “In the Body of the World” and “Wild Horses”

It takes more than memorization to put across a solo play (although that element should not be minimized). Those sometimes deceptively crowded affairs require the establishing of unique personal connections to the audience and, in most, the enacting of multiple characters through variations of voice and demeanor in such a way that leaves no doubt as to who is whom when. High profile Broadway outings this season have included John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” and John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons.” (Solo Performance is a category at both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.)

No one has achieved more solo-show recognition than Eve Ensler, primarily for “The Vagina Monologues,” which she wrote and performed solo. (It has morphed into a women’s ensemble piece, not to its detriment.) Ensler’s “In the Body of the World” is now running off-Broadway, while on the Broadway in Long Branch, New Jersey, the resourceful NJ Repertory Company is featuring “Wild Horses,” written by Allison Gregory and performed by Estelle Bajou. Both pieces are also directed by women: “World” by Diane Paulus (“Waitress,” etc. on B’way) and “Horses” by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. Both actors deserve that memorization shout-out, but it is their rapport with the audience and their evocations of diverse persons (of both sexes) that most impress.

Eve Ensler [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A Thornton Wilder adaptation at Two River Theater is a bridge too far

A Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by Thornton Wilder opens with no curtain, no scenery. Presently an actor enters and addresses the audience. He names the play and who wrote it. He sets the locale and the precise day-date and outlines the enactment to follow. He tells a bit about the characters that will populate the play, including that he himself will appear later as a character; then the play unfolds on a mostly bare stage with minimal furniture and props.

Sound familiar? It should, but it isn’t. It’s not “Our Town,” but a version of Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” adapted for the stage by David Greenspan, who also plays the Stage Manager…oops, the Narrator, and a character in the ninety-minute one-act, world-premiering through March 18 at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ..

Camila Perichole (Elizabeth Ramos) and Uncle Pio (David Greenspan)

Continue reading

Blog, Professional, Regional

A night at “Jerry Springer – The Opera” (Not for the faint of heart)

My exposure to the Jerry Springer Show has been limited to an occasional YouTube clip, but I’ve seen enough to know that the following topics are representative: “My mom used to be my dad – snip, snip” and “I was jilted by a lesbian…dwarf…yum yum” and “I used to be a lap-dancing pre-operative transsexual.”

One thing to know about The New Group’s “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” running through March 11 at the The Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street, is that those are lyrics from the opening number, sung by a dozen faux audience members  – and cleaned up for inclusion here!

Another thing to know is that the show really is operatic in form…mostly sung, with limited spoken dialogue. It is hardly austere or Grand in subject matter, but it is close in style to what you find some sixty blocks uptown. Even more so, really, than some mainstream sung-throughs. (“Les Mis” comes to mind.) That is, much of the acting is self-conscious, as in so much ‘real’ opera. The difference is that here it is intentional. Half parody, half homage and wholly outrageous in topic and language, it is also devilishly funny. (In fairness to Mr. Gelb’s uptown venue, much of Grand Opera has toned down the histrionics, but still…) With music,lyrics and book by Richard Thomas (not that one) and additional book/lyric input by Stewart Lee, the off-Broadway premiere of the “gleefully profane” musical arives fifteen years after its multi-award-winning run in London.

Jerry (Terrence Mann) and “guests with guilty secrets”

Continue reading

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Contrasting premieres at New Jersey Regionals: “The Outsider” and “American Hero”

As if we needed a reminder about the difference between governing and politicking, along comes “The Outsider,” running through February 18 at Paper Mill Playhouse. The wide chasm that exists between those two concepts is old news (and hardly fake), but Paul Slade Smith’s farcical romp puts a quirky spin on it.

When the governor of an un-named state is forced to retire (the usual reason), his Lieutenant Governor is revealed as a mumbling fumbler. Ned Newley (Lenny Wolpe) appears not only to be incompetent, but also incapable of coherent communication in a public forum, but he is actually a policy wonk with a firm grasp on budgets, infra-structure and other facets of statewide government. The bumbler-cum fiscal whiz is acted to a tee by Wolpe, whose familiar visage has never been more pliable, and it is no surprise that Governor Newley’s brand of governmental accountability eventually triumphs.

Power-broker (Burke Moses) grooming the Governor (Lenny Wolpe) for a public appearance

Continue reading

Blog, Professional, Regional

Glorious still: “A Chorus Line” in Westchester

Here’s a list of those individuals who should see “A Chorus Line”: Anyone who has ever auditioned for a show or competed in any way for any job; anyone who has ever sung, danced and/or acted on any stage (or “air-danced” in private); and anyone who remembers “A Chorus Line” from years ago or who, by some fault of timing or misguided choice, has never seen it.

And here’s a list of who should see it at Westchester Broadway Theatre before it closes there on April 1: All of the above.

It had been a while since my last “A Chorus Line.” The 2006 Broadway production was more an attempt at re-creation than a revival: faithful but somewhat mechanical. WBT’s is a fresh revival (oxymoron noted), a vibrant rendering of the 1975 musical that not only took Broadway by storm, but that also altered the face of the American musical. No history lesson here, but when’s the last time you saw separate singing and dancing ensembles? Try to get a gig now at any level if you can’t do both. (And, oh yeah, act.)

The auditions begin [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

Continue reading

Blog, Professional, Regional