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A CurtainUp Review
The Other Place
By Elyse Sommer
Even before the play begins as you're still settling into your seat, you see a woman sitting quietly in a chair. Her dressed-for-success suit suggests the every day real world of someone whose work takes her on many flights to conferences and meetings. But the abstract wall framing the set is open enough for glimpses of a projected blue sky and the hum of Fitz Patton's sound design suggest something mysterious, even ominous, about to unfold.
The woman on stage turns out to be the central character, 52-year-old Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist specializing in neurological medicine. Initially she's the narrator of her own story, her narration interspersed into the speech she's giving about a dementia drug she's developed and is now promoting.
The quote above comes early on in the play. The "in spite of everything that's happened" preface to Juliana's statement that the numbers in "the balance sheet" of her life add up to her being a happy woman hints at a struggle to keep those numbers steady. Those numbers will indeed tumble precipitously during the course of 80 minutes, but to tell you more about how and why would diminish your experience of letting the emotional and medical trauma of Juliana's life as a mother, wife and scientist reveal themselves gradually.
What I can tell you is that the "other place" of the title is a weekend home on Cape Cod that has been in Juliana's family for generations. Its windswept shores are a metaphoric clue to this play's universal meaning — that we're all subject to finding ourselves suddenly drowning in a sea of anxiety, anger and confusion.
I can also tell you that The Other Place works on several levels — as a psychological thriller, a scientific mystery and a heart gripping family drama. There's no shortage of plot twists, some of which could be seen as too coincidental; that is, if Mr. White hadn't managed to create such believable characters and moved them through an often unrealistic first act into an all too real second act so that nothing is any more coincidental than life often is.
Best of all The Other Place is a gift to the actress playing the central role. Laurie Metcalf proves herself to be more than worthy of that gift, so much so that she may well find herself a front runner for several best actress in an Off-Broadway play awards. She mines Juliana's dual persona — as a scientist with the brains and self-confidence to crash the glass ceiling of the clubby molecular science world and as a woman whose own scary medical crisis has kicked up painful and confused memories of a ten-year-old personal tragedy. She brings a knife-edged archness to the professional Juliana, and incredible vulnerability to her suddenly needy self.
While Juliana is the character around whom everything revolves and Metcalf's performance is an undisputable star turn, Dennis Boutsikaris and Aya Cash contribute forcefully to the drama's generally powerful heartbeat. Boutsikaris plays Juliana's husband Ian with an emotional depth that's never cloying. Aya Cash takes on not one but three roles: As a young doctor, as Juliana's daughter and, most touchingly, as a stranger whose own personal crisis somehow dovetails very movingly with Juliana's. John Schiappa, rounds out the cast of characters with two secondary roles.
As The Other Place is difficult to review without giving away too much, it's also a challenge for the director to stage the shifts from scenes inside the landscape of the narrator's mind and complete reality, without sacrificing the viewer's comprehension. Joe Mantello expertly and sensitively directs this tricky play so that viewers, even though likely to be a bit at sea initially, the fine acting and sure-handed direction keeps them fully engaged from the start, confident that everything will be clarified.
Mr. Mantello has wisely omitted an intermission between the first and second act, though there's a crackling interlude to establish the drastic shift between acts. Eugene Lee's abstract set turns out to be remarkably versatile and is strongly supported by the rest of the design team.
If you're wondering about the play's medical accuracy, the playwright in a New York Times interview said that it was checked out by his father who is a biophysicist. As for the play's future, terrific as Laurie Metcalf is, The Other Place is not a one actor play and it's a good bet that regional theater directors have access to capable actors so that they can bring this play to audiences in their area. em. For this reviewer, it's bracing to report on two excellent new plays Off-Broadway (see my review of Kin in less than two weeks. Add two new Broadway dramas — Good People and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (review to be posted Wednesday night) and it adds up to a fertile season for straight plays.