Monday, April 23, 2018

New Plays by Major Playwrights: Good for Otto and Mlima's Tale

Ed Harris and Rileigh McDonald in David Rabe's Good for Otto. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

David Rabe’s Good for Otto premiered at the Gift Theatre in Chicago in 2015 but only now is it receiving a New York production, off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center – and with an amazing cast that includes Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, Mark Linn-Baker and Laura Esterman. Rabe’s 1971 The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is one of my favorite plays, and I love his screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), but his other well-known theatre pieces – In the Boom Boom Room, Hurlyburly, and the second and third parts of his Vietnam trilogy, Sticks and Bones and Streamers – feel rigged to me, and compulsively overwritten. He doesn’t get much attention these days, and I’m afraid I stopped following his work long ago. (The last play of his I saw was Those That River Keeps when American Repertory Theatre produced it in 1993 with Jack Willis and Paul Guilfoyle.) Clearly I should have been watching more closely. Good for Otto is messy and overlong – it runs just over three hours – but it’s a lovely, full-hearted play, and Scott Elliott’s vibrant, varied staging and the marvelous work of the actors showcase it affectionately.

The protagonist is Dr. Bob Michaels (Harris), a counselor at a therapy center in the Berkshires where he and his colleague Evangeline Ryder (Madigan) divide the patients between them, sometimes spelling each other when one of them is overbooked or has reached a dead end with a patient who might benefit from shifting to a different counselor. The patients come in all ages and types, but most of them – at least, the ones we get to listen to – are in serious trouble. Barnard (Abraham), in his seventies, has chronic difficulty getting himself out of bed (for psychological reasons, not physical ones); his initial conversations with Evangeline, which come at the insistence of his concerned wife Teresa (Esterman), are over the phone, until Evangeline manages to get him in to see her in person. Timothy (Linn-Baker), who’s around fifty, acts out like a belligerent child in an elementary-school playground, and his efforts at social interactions are so abrasive that sometimes they land him in hot water with the police. Thirtysomething Jerome (Kenny Mellman), whose long, thick, out-of-control hair and beard operate as signposts for his character, still lives with his parents in his childhood bedroom; for three years he’s been in the process of moving – not even out of their house, but to an apartment they’ve set up for him in their basement – but he claims he can’t do so until he’s finished organizing his possessions in boxes. Alex (Maulik Pancholy), a new name on Evangeline’s roster, is a young gay man with no sexual experience whose “relationship” with a man at a local bar is completely in his head. Bob is preoccupied with his most worrisome case, a twelve-year-old girl named Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), an abuse victim whose foster mother, Nora (Perlman), is anxious to adopt her but can’t do so until a judge makes a ruling against the claims of her birth mother. In the meantime Frannie’s level of anxiety has risen so high that Bob is terrified she’ll try to kill herself.

Bob’s fears for Frannie are linked to his own past: at nine he found the body of his mother after she’d committed suicide. Mom, as she’s listed in the cast of characters, visits Bob in his thoughts (where she’s played by Charlotte Hope), and as he veers close to sixty-five – and to the time of year when she died – he feels shaky. The scenes between Harris (who gives a beautiful performance) and Hope have an ironic edge because she appears, of course, at the age she never lived past, approximately half his current years, and these scenes are both sweet and dark. She’s warm and loving, but we can’t forget that she allowed herself to be discovered after she’d offed herself by her little boy, and, as we learn, she used a tube from his chemistry set to ingest gas in addition to downing pills and wrapping plastic around her head. She insists that she used to sing to Bob – that she’s the source of his lifelong love of old songs like “On Moonlight Bay,” “Glow, Little Glow Worm” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” choruses of which he leads his patients in (also in his mind) – but he doesn’t recall. The thought she leaves him with, in their final exchange, is that she holds out a door for him to pass through, a last-ditch solution to all his problems. It is, of course, the one she took, the one that he’s fighting against allowing Frannie, in her despair, to take.

Amy Madigan and F. Murray Abraham in Good for Otto. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The style of the play allows for other fantasy sequences, like the introduction, early in the first act, of a guitar player named Jimmy (Michael Rabe) who shot himself some time ago. (Kate Buddeke plays his mother, Jane, who still shows up at the clinic.) In act two Frannie and Mom meet, presumably in Bob’s thoughts or perhaps his dreams, and when Evangeline talks Bob into admitting Frannie to the psych ward for her own protection while they’re awaiting the judge’s decision, it’s to Mom’s arms that she runs, terrified, until Mom, gently but forcefully, pushes her back into Bob’s. The connection between these two characters, the suicide and the girl who’s teetering on the edge, is amazing – moving and unexpected: we might anticipate something like the last scene in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, where the spirit of a teenager who’s shot himself tries to tempt his friend to join him, but though Mom may wave the specter of suicide over her son’s head, she turns out to be a real boon to Frannie, an advocate for continued life and hope.

Part of the surprise of Good for Otto, at least for theatregoers like me who haven’t tuned into Rabe’s work for a couple of decades, is how different it is from the plays we associate with him. He’s lost the heaviness of purpose that is a trademark of even his best early pieces; this play is free-wheeling and light-footed, and there’s a great deal of humor in it, which Elliott and his cast pick up on whenever they can. (One example: when Bob has had enough of Mom, he rolls her summarily into the wings on one of the two office chairs that usually sit center stage, an emblem of the therapist-patient relationship at the core of the script. The flexible, understated yet evocative set, which has little else on it except for bleachers that seat both the ensemble and some members of the audience, was designed by Derek McLane and lit by Jeff Croiter.) The cast is filled with actors who are masters at tonal shifts; the most remarkable are Harris, Madigan (who has been for many years both Harris’s wife and his frequent acting partner), F. Murray Abraham, Mark Linn-Baker and Maulik Pancholy, whose climactic scene is terrifying. Abraham has a couple of mesmerizing monologues that I’d call existential comedy, detailing the obstacles that an ordinary day throws up to him.

Bob and Evangeline are profoundly dedicated counselors, and sometimes they lead their patients to poignant epiphanies. (Bob experiences one of his own, toward the end of the play.) Bob is wonderful with the little girl, Frannie, and when he has to deal on the phone with Marcy (a witty Nancy Giles), the representative of the insurance company whose approach to needy cases like Frannie’s is relentlessly bureaucratic and notably lacking in empathy, he’s like Don Quixote tilting at the windmill. (It was smart of Rabe to make these scenes comic.) But he’s not perfect, and neither is Evangeline. A bonus of the play is that it shows us which of the patients engages which of the therapists. Listening to Barnard drone on makes Evangeline restless, and, his head full of Frannie, Bob finds Timothy’s obsession with his pet hamster, Otto, who has to undergo surgery, trivial to the point of absurdity. We don’t; Timothy’s feelings for his pet have the effect of carrying him past his ferocious self-absorption. At one point, late in act two, Bob reminds Evangeline that the adversary they face day after day is devilishly cunning. Timothy’s joy when Otto comes through the surgery – which explains the title of the play – is a victory for the good guys.

Sahr Ngaujah in Mlima's Tale. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lynn Nottage’s latest, Mlima’s Tale (at the Public), is a didactic fable that exposes the corruption at the heart of the African ivory trade and the wanton destruction of elephants to feed that particular brand of commerce despite the legal measures that are supposed to moderate it. Mlima is a magnificent elephant slaughtered by poachers; Nottage shows us every step along the way from that act to the sale to a wealthy Chinese couple of a pair of ivory heads fashioned from the creature’s tusks. Her model for the structure of the play is Schnitzler’s famous erotic roundelay La Ronde, a series of love scenes with overlapping characters: one of the lovers in the first scene goes to bed with someone else in the second scene, who mates with someone else in the third scene and so on. Each scene in Mlima’s Tale introduces a new character who advances the journey of the tusks. I liked Nottage’s last play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, but this one is preachy and mediocre, and Jo Bonney’s production lacks resonance. Sahr Ngaujah brings physical authority to the spirit of Mlima, who dominates every scene. All the human roles are split among three actors, Kevin Mambo, Jojo Gonzalez and Ito Aghayere, but only Aghayere is interesting to watch. Justin Hicks, as composer and musician, contributes the most vivid element of the show.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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