On “The Other Place”

Saturday, January 19, 2013

This week has been a dynamic adventure in theatre-going, stimulating thinking, and emotional evoking.  I haven’t yet hit a loser in the bunch.   I’m used to taking more chances with unknown new plays, so not to find even one complete bomb on my list is a rare treat.

“The Other Place” just reopened a few nights ago, after an off-Broadway run a year or so ago.  Its too short run has been extended, if only to March 2, although with its justifiable critical raves, one could hope for it to extend again.  It was a last-minute switch for me, as I had planned to take in James DaVita’s In Acting Shakespeare over at the Pearl Theatre Co.   Its fisherman’s paean to the bard sounded fascinating, but the nature of what I’d read about The Other Place lured me over.  I’ll have to catch Mr. DaVita elsewhere, hopefully.   Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy” and off-Broadway’s “Tribes” close tomorrow.   “The Suit” will be out at BAM only until  Feb 2.  “The Heiress” will close on Feb. 10.   “Avenue Q” has recently closed its Broadway run, but continues off-Broadway, where I’d rather have seen it anyway.  And Peter Brook’s “Once” is going strong with full houses and no end in sight.   All over town at this time of year, theaters are clearing out their stages in preparation for the new season.  And already, my new list of must-sees is underway.  But first things first.

other placeI want to start with Sharr White’s “The Other Place,” my favorite of this trip.  It’s a stunning little piece of theatre about a super confident and competent neurologist played by Laurie Metcalf.  As she lectures her colleagues about the effectiveness of a new drug in combatting dementia, she is disconcerted by the appearance of a woman in a yellow bikini sitting among them.  The story that evolves from there is from Dr. Julianna Smithton’s point of view, and it quickly becomes a fascinating puzzle, a very disorienting quest into what’s real and what’s not.  It’s a mystery we must constantly rediscover or reinvent our own answers for, as circumstances are revealed which may or may not be true.  Metcalf establishes herself here as one of the great actors of the American stage.  As Julianna seeks to unravel the mystery that bewilders her, she goes through the whole range of human emotion:  fear, mockery, gratitude, anger, hatred, and self-deception.   She excels at expressing the duality of being completely in charge and at the same time frightened and vulnerable.  It’s that rare kind of performance to be long savored.  She’s already won an Obie and other awards for this performance in 2011’s off-Broadway run of the play.  On Broadway it just opened on Jan. 10, and I assume it will be eligible for this year’s Tony Awards.  In a year with a lot of capable competition, I’d still be very surprised if she did not win “best actress in a play.”

She is joined here by three other actors, one being her own daughter, Zoe Perry.  The chemistry between them is electric and completely convincing.  Daniel Stern plays Julianna’s loving husband, suffering helplessly as he watches his wife’s world come apart at all too young an age, raising up a  family history best kept forgotten.  Stern turns in a mature and sensitive performance in no way to be associated with some of the frivolous roles of his youth (Think “Home Alone.”)  All were directed by veteran Joe Mantello, bringing his own superb sense of timing and minimalism, as well as the fourth actor, John Schiappa, from the original production.

I also have to say a word about the simple but imaginative metaphorical set for this show, designed by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce:  One chair surrounded by a semi-circular high wall, a collage  of white-washed window frames, which conceal doors, seating possibilities, and hidden niches from which little props seem to emerge on demand, as if by magic.   It is only as the play itself evolves that we begin to understand the dimensionality of the imprisoning collage of windows.

As good as the production is in all its aspects though, it is the play itself which is such a head-and-heart-grabber.  It is deep, complicated, and elusive.   Sharr White has been writing plays for half his lifetime, and he’s now 42.  His work has earned him regional awards all over the country.  The non-profit MCC Theater (Originally the Manhattan Class Company) brought this play to the Lucille Lortel Theatre off-Broadway 2 years ago, and now another non-profit theatre the Manhattan Theatre Club, has brought it uptown for an all too brief run — nonetheless his first “Broadway Play.”   If that was his ambition, it’s been a long hard schlep.  But I expect we’ll hear a lot more from him.  Bravo!

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