Saturday, April 9, 2011

"The Other Place" - Wrenchingly Powerful

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Actress Laurie Metcalf turns in a stellar performance of a woman struggling with something neither she nor those closest to her completely understand in Sharr White's emotionally devastating and gently ironic The Other Place, winningly directed by Joe Mantello and presented by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

52 year-old Juliana (Metcalf) is a scientist who for the past several years has been working for a drug company on its latest offering, a drug specifically tailored to target the effects of dementia, said drug having just gotten approval from the FDA. During a lecture about the potential benefits of the drug she spots, to her great annoyance, a young woman in a yellow string bikini who has just come into the lecture hall. As Juliana continues her talk, she begins making this woman the butt of several pointed jokes, only to notice that the woman is not only actively listening to the lecture, but is quickly becoming emotionally engaged in what she is saying. But before Juliana can reason out just who this person is, she loses her train of thought and needs to be escorted from the stage.

Juliana believes she is having what she calls "an episode," one related to brain cancer, as she tells her long-estranged daughter Laurel (Aya Cash) in a phone call. Juliana hasn't seen Laurel in person for over a decade. Not since Laurel ran off with Richard (John Schiappa), Juliana's doctoral student, and a man 15 years Laurel's senior. Laurel and Richard are now married and have two little girls. Juliana is also in the middle of divorcing her oncologist husband Ian (Dennis Boutsikaris) due to his having an affair with one of his colleagues. Yet she still trusts her soon-to-be-ex enough to want him to be her doctor. It seems brain cancer runs in Juliana's family and she has long been dreading the day when she learns she been stricken.

Yet is what Juliana saying, and believes with every fiber of her being, actually the truth? Did Laurel run off with Richard, or did Richard kidnap her? Is Ian actually having an affair, and why can't he ever get the chance to speak to Laurel when she calls? Plus, why does Juliana keep referring to the family beach house on Cape Cod in the present tense when she and Ian sold it years ago - or did they? For that matter, does she actually have brain cancer?

With The Other Place (a terms with several meanings) the playwright has crafted both an analytical and poignant story about the terrible fragility, vulnerability, and immense desire of the human mind. For as Juliana's condition worsens, she becomes more and more determined to fix the most important things that went wrong in her life in the time she has left, such as repairing her relationship with Laurel and Richard. However, that may not be possible, as Juliana is revealed to be a powerful, controlling, and often condescending woman who can't seem to resist getting in one verbal dig after another. Yet it is this same need for control that drives her to continue to try to put things right, even though it may be way too late, as people eventually try to tell her.

Running through the entire play is the fear of what dementia can do and how it can eventually destroy one's very sense of self. As Juliana notes in her lecture, the condition has "a 100% mortality rate," so the fear of the disease is something everyone can certainly relate to. What is not that well known and which the play powerfully points out, is that such conditions may exist for years before full-blown episodes of the disease actually occur. As demonstrated in flashback when it is shown just what happened to drive Laurel from her home years earlier. Unfortunately all too often people are too close to the truth to really understand it. A point made clear when Juliana angrily tells her doctor (Cash) "if I had dementia I would know it!"

Metcalf is brilliant as Juliana, a powerful, self-assured woman whose very identify is being stolen away. It's a testament to the actress's ability that she is able to take a not very likable character and make her an object of understanding and sympathy, rather than abject pity. Used to using acid humor and anger first as a defense, then as crutch, the few quiet moments Juliana has are both shattering and frightening to behold. Especially when she finally realizes just what is happening to her. She is also able to deliver the scientific explanations and jargon quite well.

Boutsikaris works very well in the role of Ian. Long since used to his wife's frequent outbursts of rage, he puts up with it because he loves her dearly. Through Ian, the play is able to show how those closest to someone suffering from such an illness are affected just as powerfully. Especially when all they can often do is offer support while being a verbal punching bag for the afflicted person's rage and anger, while being unable to really talk to the one person they love the most.

Cash and Schiappa both work well in multiple roles. Cash is believable both as Laurel and as Dr. Cindy Teller, a neurobiologist whom Juliana is certain is having an affair with Ian; the Teller character nicely being able to maintain a professional demeanor in the face of Juliana's accusations. Cash's best role however is a young woman going through a painful period of her own and who encounters Juliana in the final scenes. Schiappa is good as Richard and in several other roles; through he has less to do than the rest of the cast. Yet is able to give his various characters a nice air of both authority and realism.

Mantello's direction is very good, allowing the mystery and power of the play to continue to grow with each succeeding scene and making sure the various actors keep their roles totally real in connection to what is going on, with never a false note. Eugene Lee's set, a sort of backdrop perhaps indicting the human brain or the jumble the mind can become, works well.
In the end the show comes full circle in a sense, allowing the characters to move forward by understanding what has come before, while being uncertain as to what is coming next. Devastatingly powerful, with a final realization that is heartbreaking, The Other Place illustrates a desperate attempt to fix what can't be fixed and an ultimate ending about moving on, broken in some sense, but whole in others. This one is a must-see. It's also nice that the theatre has a rule that no latecomers being seated once the performance begins. Too bad about the people's cell phones that kept going off or the woman who was texting throughout the play.

The Other Place
Written by Sharr White
Directed by Joe Mantello
Scenic Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Video & Production Design: William Cusick
Production Manager: B.D. White
Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel
Presented by MCC

Featuring: Dennis Boutsikaris (Ian), Aya Cash (Dr. Cindy Teller, Laurel, Woman), Laurie Metcalf (Juliana), John Schiappa (Dr. Richard Sillner, Medical Technician, Nurse)

Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street

Tickets: 212-270-4200 or

Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission)

Closes: May 1, 2011

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