The first sign that things may not be what they seem in "The Other Place" appears on page 4 of Sharr White's script: The whip-smart scientist at the story's heart has confused the gender of a doctor treating her.
It's a mistake that's quickly brushed aside. But the slip-ups soon begin piling up in this 80-minute gem of a play until what's real and what's not collapse in a heap. It's confusing and thrilling stuff.
"I'm having a hard time figuring out where I am," our heroine, dementia expert Dr. Juliana Smithton, says meekly at the end.
For much of the play, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, we know the feeling — White is stingy with his clues.
Among the questions swirling about: Who is lying? Is the good doctor getting divorced? What happened to the couples' daughter? Who is the woman in a yellow bikini who sparked Smithton's meltdown? And, ultimately, what is wrong with our heroine? Something definitely is, since her command of English slowly betrays her, with "thingy" creeping in and exasperated references to "the other place," her Cape Cod summer home.
The play — so buffed and polished it now seems to squeak — is matched by a searing, brilliant performance by Laurie Metcalf, who is simply astonishing as she goes from snippy, bossy scientist to a broken, confused intruder wolfing down Chinese food on the floor.
Director Joe Mantello keeps up a blistering pace — snippets of scenes dissolve into another, past and present collide. Speed is important to keep the audience guessing, but it leaves no room for a moment's error. Mantello proves as sharp as the narrator is unreliable.
"The Other Place" had its world premiere off-Broadway at the MCC Theater in March 2011, starring Metcalf and helmed by Mantello. The Manhattan Theatre Club has happily given a rebuffed version a bigger platform with some other supporting actors. It simply gleams.
While Metcalf alternates between playing the narrator and patient, Daniel Stern plays her trying-to-be-stoic oncologist husband, and Zoe Perry portrays the couple's daughter as well as a neurobiologist and another woman dealing with her own crisis. John Schiappa plays a few small roles.
Seeing Metcalf and Perry onstage together as mother and daughter is one of those beautiful things that come around too infrequently. The two are in real life mother and daughter, and Perry is every bit as wonderful as her mom in a touching final scene in which the roles of child and mother are reversed.
William Cusick's projections are wistful and gloomy — seeping darkness often fills the back wall — and Fitz Patton's soundscape, which alternates from scratchy telephone calls to barely tolerable electronica, is spot on.
The single, spare set by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, which consists of interlocking wood frames, seems to reach for a Piet Mondrian vibe but ends up looking too much like a bunch of old lobster pots nailed together.
Though the play is just over an hour long, Metcalf works the hardest and longest, never leaving the limelight. As the audience enters, she's in a fancy chair in the middle of the stage, legs crossed, picking at a smartphone or staring into space. It's her only moment of calm before a stunning, frantic and moving piece of theater.
In Sharr White’s curvy and compelling drama, “The Other Place,” Laurie Metcalf plays an addled neuroresearcher — and never leaves the stage.
That’s worth noting, since the actress famous for her Emmy-winning work on “Roseanne” makes every one of those 70 minutes spark and crackle.
Theaterphiles are already onto Metcalf’s power to Crazy-Glue attention. If you only know Metcalf from TV, the drama offers a perfect chance to savor a fascinating stage animal in her natural habitat.
This is also a textbook example of how a glowing star turn can elevate a good play into one that’s even better than that — it’s a show that’s hard to get out of your head.
That’s precisely the trouble area for Dr. Juliana Smithton (Metcalf), a Boston brain scientist. While pitching an innovative memory drug at a medical conference, she suffers a disorienting mental “episode.”
It strikes just as Juliana sees a girl in a yellow bikini in the audience. Or at least she thinks she sees the chick; Juliana’s perceptions are unreliable and getting worse.
What’s made her mental circuits go haywire (brain cancer and dementia are suspects) and the significance of the babe in the sun-colored swimsuit come out bit-by-bit. The play’s strength is the canny way White jigsaws together details until they form a full picture, complete with a touching emotional kick.
But before that, Juliana retreats to her old home (“the other place”) and reckons with an earlier excruciating “episode” — one involving her daughter.
Presented in 2011 by MCC Theater and now in a somewhat revised and partly recast production by Manhattan Theatre Club, “The Other Place” is built on a tidy irony — a brain expert-turned-head case. In varying degrees, the play recalls “Wit,” “Proof” and “A Beautiful Mind.” But this work is ultimately about what’s lost to a disease — people, memories, oneself.
Joe Mantello (“The Normal Heart,” “Wicked”) directs the bracing production, which unfolds seamlessly on Eugene Lee’s evocative set of overlapping windows.
The supporting cast is topnotch, including Daniel Stern as Juliana’s beleaguered husband, Zoe Perry (Metcalf’s real-life daughter), who plays a doctor and a bitter divorcee, and John Schiappa in a couple small roles.
But it’s really all about Juliana, a brittle individual who seems even tougher than she did during the first run. She’s now caustic enough to come with a warning label.
It’s not a fluke, considering that Ian says to his wife: “You know, what surprises me almost more than anything else is how cruel this thing has made you.”
It’s a harsh reality. And played by Metcalf, it hurts so good.
“The Other Place” is billed as “a riveting new thriller.” That’s putting it loosely.
The play is less riveting than it is reasonably engaging. It’s not entirely new, either, having premiered downtown two years ago. As for the “thriller” tag, let’s just say the decorous Manhattan Theatre Club is behind this Broadway transfer, so don’t expect fisticuffs.
In other words, fans of the Bourne franchise may want to sit this one out.
Yet Sharr White’s drama — ably directed by Joe Mantello (“Other Desert Cities”) — does deliver twists and turns. They just take place inside the head of the central character, Dr. Juliana Smithton.
Juliana is in every single one of the show’s 85 minutes. More, actually, since she’s already onstage, coolly checking out her phone, while the audience files in the theater.
Luckily, this daunting role is played by the formidable Laurie Metcalf, who created it for MCC Theater in 2011.
While Metcalf remains best known for her stint on the sitcom “Roseanne,” she’s shown, in plays like “Balm in Gilead” and “A Lie of the Mind,” to be among our most intense stage presences.
And Juliana is nothing if not intense.
The first impression she makes is one of perfect poise. Dressed in a business suit, she recounts a trip to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, for a medical conference. Once a neuroscientist, Juliana is now hawking a drug she helped create. Her tongue is as sharp as her outfit — nobody messes with this woman.
In a series of short, seemingly disconnected scenes, we see Juliana address the convention, bicker with her husband, Ian (Daniel Stern), and consult with a physician, Dr. Teller (Zoe Perry, Metcalf’s real-life daughter, in one of several roles).
It’s clear Juliana’s going through a rough patch, not only with Ian but with their daughter, Laurel (Perry), and son-in-law, Richard (John Schiappa).
Her way of dealing seems to be sardonic humor. Asked, by her doctor, if she’s entertaining suicidal thoughts, Juliana retorts, “Dating them actually. But they won’t put out.”
Little by little, we realize this steely-looking woman is a completely unreliable narrator. White plays around with locales and chronology so our perceptions are as scrambled as Juliana’s. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s haunting set design incorporates dozens of glassless window frames, which suggests both looking out and being caged.
Metcalf tracks her character’s gradual collapse with fierce empathy and painstaking precision — we see madness gnawing at her mind like a mouse feasting on a piece of cheese.
When Juliana’s anguish hits full force, it’s like a punch in the gut — all thanks to Metcalf, because the writing isn’t as compelling as her performance.
Indeed, the show levels out after we understand what’s really going on, and White throws in some unconvincing coincidences before resorting to a pat wrap-up. It’s almost besides the point: The play is a vehicle for a valiant star, and Metcalf steers it with fearless confidence.
As you watch “The Other Place,” a slick, potently acted drama by Sharr White that opened on Broadway on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, it may strike you now and then that your mind is playing tricks on you. Facts that seem firmly established in one scene melt into vapor a few scenes later, leaving you with a vague itch to press pause to sort things out, or maybe rewind. Or both.
Don’t worry: the disorientation is not accidental. Mr. White’s aim is to keep us wondering about everything we are told by the play’s protagonist and narrator, a drug-company scientist named Juliana Smithton. (Even her name is the subject of some testy badinage.) And thanks to the superb performance of Laurie Metcalf as Juliana, the less we are sure of, the more we are engaged. Our perceptions of Juliana’s journey through a life upended by trauma may continually shift, but one thing remains fixed: the intense, complicated humanity of Ms. Metcalf’s performance.
At first it’s hard to imagine a more reliable narrator than the formidable Juliana. As embodied by an actor who naturally exudes an earthbound, no-nonsense intelligence, Juliana seems to define integrity, honesty and authority. Wearing a sleek black skirt, jacket and heels, Juliana addresses us directly in the opening moments of the play, recounting a disturbing episode that took place at a pharmaceutical conference in the Virgin Islands.
Having relinquished research, Juliana is now in the business of promoting a new drug she discovered for the treatment of dementia. Crisply in command of scientific language, she radiates a confidence slightly tinged with aggression. You wouldn’t want to find yourself on the other side of an academic argument with this woman.
But midway through her presentation to a group of medical professionals, she becomes disturbed by a young woman in attendance wearing nothing but a yellow bikini. As the presence of this unsettling auditor begins to obsess Juliana, her concentration vanishes, her mind suddenly freezes up. The presentation, we learn, was abruptly ended. Retreating back home to Boston, Juliana finds herself convinced that she has a brain tumor.
But does she? Juliana’s belief in her self-diagnosis may be fierce and intractable, but she happens to be married to a prominent oncologist, Ian (Daniel Stern), who remains unconvinced and urges her to see another specialist. Unfortunately Juliana doesn’t put much stock in Ian’s advice these days, not since he started cheating on her. And not since he refuses to join her in reaching out to their estranged daughter (Zoe Perry), with whom they have not been in contact for many years, after she ran off and married a onetime colleague of Juliana (John Schiappa).
As scenes from Juliana’s life are enacted before us — often narrated from her point of view — our perspective on her character begins to shift, imperceptibly at first, and ultimately radically. By the end of Mr. White’s taut drama, which clocks in at a speedy 70 minutes, the authority that Juliana wears with as much confidence as she does that trim suit has been stripped away, exposing a woman as fragile as a delicate piece of glass and almost as transparent.
Looked upon with a cynical eye — or, maybe just a critical one — “The Other Place,” first seen Off Broadway in an MCC Theater production before this Manhattan Theater Club restaging, could be dismissed as a more sophisticated, stylishly presented version of lesser cable-television fare, those addictively lurid movies about women imperiled by either a) bad men playing head games, or b) fatal diseases, or c) both. And the play turns on a twist of fate that is far too tidy to be credible.
Still, “The Other Place” is a cunningly constructed entertainment that discloses its nifty twists at intervals that keep us intrigued. In what is shaping up to be a lousy season for new plays on Broadway, perhaps this alone is worth a cheer or two.
Even more worthy of praise is the fine production, nimbly directed by Joe Mantello and featuring excellent supporting performances from Mr. Stern and Ms. Perry (Ms. Metcalf’s real-life daughter). Mr. Stern’s Ian weathers Juliana’s heated attacks on his integrity with a befuddled exasperation that makes us question her assessment of him as a disloyal adulterer. Ms. Perry neatly differentiates all three roles she plays, but is particularly fine as a young woman whose fraught encounter with Juliana at the family beach house on Cape Cod (the “other place” of the title) brings the play to a moving conclusion.
But your attention is not likely to stray from Ms. Metcalf for long. The mystery of her character’s behavior keeps acquiring new layers, and she brings to each new revelation an intensity and precision that transfixes. The efficient businesswoman of the first scene becomes the embittered wife of the next. She in turn melts into the loving mother pleading desperately for her daughter’s attention, eyes bright with hope and fear.
It would be unfair to describe the character’s final transformation, but as rendered by Ms. Metcalf you can rest assured it is entirely convincing, and pretty close to heartbreaking.
Laurie Metcalf has been sitting onstage in a white upholstered chair for a while before the start of "The Other Place." She wears a sleek business suit with a snappy little skirt, and we can tell by the way she crosses her legs that the woman she plays both enjoys and understands precisely their power.
For the next 80 minutes, we watch as this fierce, magnificent actress becomes the laser-point center of Juliana, 52, a brilliant neurological researcher who has what she understates as a "bit of an episode" while delivering a sales pitch/lecture to a medical convention in St. Thomas.
Sharr White's tightly swirling psychological thriller, a hit downtown at MCC Theater in 2011, has transferred to Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway venue to reach the broad audience the drama deserves.
Directed with unflinching stealth and progressive emotional jolts by Joe Mantello ("Other Desert Cities"), the play lives mostly in the internal monologues of Juliana as she tumbles into unknown psychological and medical territory.
The temptation is to say too much about the plot, which intentionally disorients us along with Juliana. But don't mistake this for the pablum that goes down easy with disease-of-the-week theatrics. White, in his Broadway debut, writes in crisp short scenes that fold back on one another with deep and ever-deepening distress.
Daniel Stern beautifully plays her oncologist husband with a dignity that shreds into levels of exasperation and heartbreak. The two younger characters -- The Woman (Zoe Perry) and The Man (John Schiappa) -- are intentionally ambiguous without ever being vague.
Metcalf's Juliana begins tough and funny, oozing a sexuality that cannot be separated from her braininess. Against startling changes of sound and light designs, her body -- including those no-longer-confident legs -- shape-shifts as she is pummeled by delusions and a genuine life-altering trauma. Operating within a honeycomb of overlapping wooden frames, Metcalf transforms from moment to moment and back again, from sublime competence to a helplessness that is hard to watch. But dare you to take your eyes off her.
Science may be advancing in the 21st century, but on Broadway, at least, its limits have never been more apparent. From 2001's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof to last fall's Grace, new plays have reminded us that physics and biochemistry can only teach us so much, and that those who master its theories can approach life with no more certainty than the rest of us.
The latter point is underlined with particular vigor in Manhattan Theatre Club's new production of Sharr White's The Other Place (* * * out of four), which casts Laurie Metcalf as Juliana Smithton, a 52-year-old neurologist with a razor-sharp mind, and a tongue to match. We meet Juliana as she recounts or re-enacts a series of recent events taking place at home, in a doctor's office and at a corporate event where she is pitching a new wonder drug.
In interwoven scenes, Julia manages to inform us that she has brain cancer, that her husband is leaving her and that their long-estranged daughter may want to reconcile. All of which could send the most grounded of women into a tailspin -- if all of it, or any of it, were true.
But it soon becomes clear that Julia's grasp on reality may have been compromised, and not by a tumor. The pyschological mystery that develops -- in which lines are blurred between memories and present action, and between imagination and truth -- is weighed down somewhat by a series of contrivances. Juliana's husband, Ian, just happens to be an oncologist, for instance; and after it is determined that she doesn't have cancer, the drug that she professionally championed turns out to be relevant to her condition.
Still, Juliana's seeming deterioration and her struggle to come to terms with it raise intriguing questions about our emotional and intellectual autonomy; and director Joe Mantello, who initially helmed the play off-Broadway last year, guides his fine cast with sensitivity and wit.
Metcalf, who earned an Obie Award in that earlier production, gives a performance as impressive for its elegance as it is for its fearlessness. Even in Juliana's most lost, desperate moments, we're aware of her native mental agility and her fierce pride, which make her painful journey all the more poignant.
Daniel Stern finds the right mix of frustration and compassion in Ian, and Zoe Perry -- Metcalf's real-life daughter -- manages a tender rapport with Metcalf while juggling several roles, from a physician to Ian and Juliana's daughter to a young woman who meets Juliana under strange circumstances, with bittersweet results for both.
The Other Place ends, as it begins, with Juliana assessing who she is and where she belongs. "I am a woman in-between," she finally tells us. "The sky and the earth. The past and the future." The scientist has learned, as we all do, that it's not for us to understand all the particulars.