It has been less than two years since I saw The Other Place Off-Broadway, yet what I remembered of it was just the spellbinding performance by Laurie Metcalf (still best-known as Roseanne’s sister on the TV series) portraying a scientific student of dementia who has some mental problems of her own. I was surprised to realize that I had forgotten the details of playwright Sharr White’s twists and revelations – even the Rosebud moment at the end.
Rather than assuming that I, too, am deteriorating, I prefer to see my memory as a reliable guide to what matters in this play that has now transferred to Broadway.
“The Other Place” at MTC’s Samuel Friedman Theater is in the hands of most of the same master craftsmen who put it together downtown at MCC – in addition to the playwright, these include director Joe Mantello and a crackerjack design team. The transfer to the larger theater doesn’t suffer, I think, from the loss of the more intimate environment. But on second viewing, it is only Metcalf’s performance that offers an unfailing thrill.
She plays Juliana Smithton, a scientist turned pharmaceutical businesswoman who we first see sitting on stage in a business suit looking at her smart phone as we are taking our seats. When she begins to speak directly to us, she explains in a brisk, no-nonsense way how “the first glimmer of it” came when she was lecturing on the island of St. Thomas about a new medicine that offered the possibility of a cure for what is apparently some form of dementia. She noticed that the only other woman in this roomful of doctors was a young woman in a yellow bikini. The woman’s presence so disturbs and distracts her, she tells us, that she cannot go on with her lecture, and is rushed back home, convinced that she has brain cancer. Her husband Ian (Daniel Stern) happens to be a prominent oncologist, however, and is convinced she doesn’t, urging her to go for tests. In the first half of the eighty-minute play, we piece together from what she tells us, and from scenes that interrupt her monologue, that she is divorcing Ian for having had affairs, and is estranged from her daughter Laurel (Zoe Perry) for having eloped with Juliana’s research assistant (John Schiappa).
At almost exactly the midpoint of the play, we finally fully realize that Juliana is an unreliable narrator, and that virtually nothing we’ve learned is true.
It would be unfair to explain more specifically, since much of the script’s appeal turns on the artful and disorienting way that White plays with our perceptions, and reveals the layers of truth.
Unlike “Wit” or “A Beautiful Mind” or “Proof” or “Next to Normal” or “Rabbit Hole” or several other such works to which it can be compared, “The Other Place” does not seem as rooted in a carefully-observed and painstakingly wrought depiction of illness or breakdown or grief. The playwright seems more engaged in creating a cat and mouse game with the audience, something with a slight whiff of “Deathtrap.” There is pleasure in this, but it is thinner on second viewing. Indeed, this puzzle might have come off as cold and almost unseemly given the subject matter were it not for Metcalf’s performance, which locates an emotional truth that is difficult to discern in the script.
I should say emotional truths. Metcalf, on the stage the entire play, holds our attention and our sympathy as she depicts a woman transformed, embodying an awesome range of attitudes and affect – smart, authoritative, sarcastic, cutting, angry, insistent, despairing, helpless.
The production in both subtle and obvious ways underscores her performance – she goes from wearing professional killer heels to going barefoot; the set is a tangle of dull gray picture frames that seems a representative of the inside of her brain, laced with lighting that bursts at times into a display that could symbolize her neurons misfiring.
Her supporting cast helps as well. Two of the three other cast members are new for the Broadway production. Daniel Stern (remember him as one of the vaudevillian villains in “Home Alone”?) is nearly unrecognizable as Ian, Juliana’s husband, and quite good in his exasperation and frustration with his wife.
The actress playing all the female parts, including that of Juliana’s daughter, is now Metcalf’s actual daughter Zoe Perry.
Their scene together near the end of the play at the family’s Cape Cod home – the literal “other place” of the title – allows Perry to go through in microcosm something similar to the kind of extraordinary yet credible range of reactions that has turned our perception of her mother from a sitcom supporting playing into one of the country’s most formidable stage actors.
The Other Place
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street
By Sharr White
Directed by Joe Mantello; sets by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Justin Townsend; music and sound by Fitz Patton; video and projections by William Cusick
Cast: Laurie Metcalf (Juliana), Daniel Stern (Ian), Zoe Perry (the Woman) and John Schiappa (the Man).
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: $67.00 – $120.00
May be inappropriate for 12 and under.
The Other Place is scheduled to run through February 24, 2013