Note: (Fri., Jan. 11, 2013): The Manhattan Theater Club production of Sharr White’s play “The Other Place,” starring Laurie Metcalf, opened last night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater after an earlier Off Broadway run presented by MCC Theater. Credits have been updated to reflect changes for the Broadway incarnation.
Anyone who saw Laurie Metcalf in the Broadway revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” would probably turn out to watch this astonishing thesp read MLB players’ stats. Sharr White gives Metcalf better than that with “The Other Place,” a haunting drama about a brilliant scientist going through the crisis of a divorce — or maybe not. Mysterious play is so cleverly constructed (and subtly helmed by Joe Mantello) that the nature and depth of the problem isn’t revealed until the last shattering scene. Even allowing for Metcalf’s must-be-seen perf, “Place” should open doors for this smart scribe.
Sometimes that endless process of script development actually works. After coming out of the Lark Play Development Center in Gotham, play was picked up for reading series on the West Coast (the Jar in Los Angeles and the Black Swan at Oregon Shakespeare Fest) before crossing the country again and landing with MCC. Should it go on? Looks good.
Mantello’s fluid production reflects the impressionistic style of the play without losing touch with the underlying reality of events. Eugene Lee’s ominous set (an installation of blank frames hanging over a largely featureless space) reflects the fractured viewpoint of a neurological scientist named Juliana Smithton (Metcalf). Although Juliana is supposed to be delivering a lecture at a medical conference in a private resort on St. Thomas, the fitful lighting (by Justin Townsend) and ambient sounds (Fitz Patton) suggest unseen danger.
The play is so layered in mystery that it isn’t until the last scene that we learn exactly what kind of lecture Juliana is giving — or understand the full circumstances behind it. In the meantime, Metcalf presents a sequence of dazzling, often contradictory versions of her complex character.
Squaring her shoulders, the actress bristles with arrogant intelligence in early scenes of Juliana as a formidable career woman in her early 50s with no patience for inferior minds — and no tolerance for the distracting young woman who has come to her lecture wearing a yellow bikini.
Scribe has real feeling for the cruel, cutting witticisms of a smart woman surrounded by idiots, and Metcalf sinks her incisors into that unlovely but entertaining aspect of Juliana’s multi-faceted character.
Thesp shows another side of Juliana — the humiliated, deeply hurt and furiously angry face of a betrayed wife — when she and husband Ian (the invaluable Dennis Boutsikaris) meet in the office of a younger woman (Aya Cash) who appears to be a marriage counselor.
That contentious divorce would seem to solve the question of why this strong, assured woman feels compelled to play the ball-buster. Except for the fact that Ian insists that they are not, in fact, in divorce hell.
Ian’s denials (“You know what surprises me? How cruel this thing has made you”) and Juliana’s own uneasy references to “glimmers” of doubt contribute to the growing air of suspicion about Juliana. Widening her perspective, scribe reveals more and more of her fascinating character — and Metcalf goes deeper and deeper into her tortured mind to show us this angry wife, this grieving mother, this desperate woman searching for “the other place”: The only place where she feels safe to be the many women she has been and the woman she is turning into.
Metcalf’s impassioned performance is amazing, but so is Juliana — and the young playwright with the courage to look her in the eye.