In Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place offers the performance of the season
We’ve all met people like Juliana Smithton, the prickly pharmaceutical researcher played with astonishing nuance by the inimitable Laurie Metcalf in Sharr White’s The Other Place. Accomplished, curt, sensible, Juliana is all business and no empathy, the kind of woman we have either worked for, sat next to, or dealt with in some confrontational manner. The kind of woman who, you’re likely to guess, harbors some deep-seated secret loss or disappointment that would make you feel sorry for her if she weren’t so busy making your life miserable.
White doesn’t pity Juliana, but he does examine this scientist from all sides in Place. This taut, splintered play, astutely directed by Joe Mantello first at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2011 and now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, isn’t so much a mystery as it is a kaleidoscopic examination at what’s eating Juliana. We first meet her, quite sensibly clad in a sleek blacks jacket and skirt (David Zinn is the costume designer), shilling a new dementia drug at a conference in St. Thomas. Narrating to us, the real audience, as curtly as she does her fictional one, Juliana explains that the presence of a young woman in a yellow bikini has distracted her. She tells us that she ended her lecture early and, upon returning home to the Boston area, sought treatment for what she suspects is brain cancer, of which she has a family history.
But Place is not an issue play, nor is it a mawkish look at illness. There isn’t room for it between White’s strategic assembly of non-linear scenes, getting us into Juliana’s head, and the unimpeachable way in which Metcalf connects all the dots. Most of these pertain to the people in her life, and how she perceives them. That includes her husband, esteemed oncologist Ian (Daniel Stern), from whom she may or may not be estranged because he may or may not be cheating on her. That also includes her daughter, Laurel (Zoe Perry, who also fills out several other female roles), whom she believes to have run off at a young age with her medical research postdoc, Richard (John Schiappa).
Though Juliana’s condition, it would seem, degenerates, Place has only improved since its Off-Broadway bow two seasons ago. Initially seen just as a vehicle for its leading lady, always rock-solid in the role, White has refined the play into a more mature work, confined neither by genre expectations nor formula developments. It is also less clumsy. While an occasional plot question mark remains, what felt omitted before now feels largely inferred. White trusts his audience and doesn’t spoon feed them answers. The results are universal, and emotionally potent, strengthened by Mantello’s polished production. Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s set design, evoking both modern window design and entwined DNA helixes, is stark but fitting; Fitz Patton’s music and sound design punctuates the many revolutions Juliana’s world makes.
And Metcalf’s contributions here cannot be underestimated. Juliana is a give-and-take role; the character keeps secrets from herself as well as the audience in whom she appears to confide. And yet the actress, eschewing sympathy at almost every turn, shades in all of Juliana’s pain, regret and fear. While she commands the stage alone often – and never leaves it for the show’s duration – Metcalf is also on fire opposite her co-stars, particularly a subtly moving Stern, hardened and heartbroken by Juliana’s helpless abuse, and Perry. It’s worth noting that Perry is Metcalf’s real-life daughter not to denote any act of nepotism or shout out a marketing ploy, but to explain what might inform their work together, especially a touching scene that comes near the play’s end. Solo or not, though, Place marks another tour-de-force for Metcalf. There’s no scientific explanation for what she is capable of. You have to see it to believe it.
And you will believe.
The Other Place
Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street. www.mtc-nyc.org. Through Feb. 24.
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