We gave it an A-
Juliana Smithton (Laurie Metcalf) is a brilliant, brittle 52-year-old neurologist with a cheating husband (Dennis Boutsikaris), an estranged daughter (Aya Cash), and two grandchildren she’s never met. She shuns carbs. During her free time at a doctors’ conference on beautiful, sunny Saint Thomas, she swims laps in an indoor pool. She hates pretty young girls and resents ogling older men. Then, while giving a pitch for the revolutionary anti-dementia drug she’s patented, the heroine of Sharr White’s new Off Broadway drama The Other Place hallucinates that a sexy twentysomething in a yellow string bikini is watching her from the all-male audience. This leads to a very messy, very public mental breakdown that convinces Juliana she’s dying of brain cancer.
The impending sickness and slow deterioration of Juliana’s memory force her to rely on her oncologist mate (whom she’s banished from the bedroom) and undergo a series of physically and emotionally invasive medical tests from the pretty M.D. she assumes is his lover. She must also mend ties with her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in the 10 years since she ran away from the family’s Cape Cod vacation home (or ?the other place? of the title), and with her daughter’s husband (John Schiappa), a former post-doctoral student whose career she destroyed some time ago.
At this point — which is only about 10 minutes into the 75-minute play — it’s pretty easy to sum up Juliana’s character: She’s middle-aged, betrayed, jealous, guilty, and dying. And she certainly is all of these things, but not for the reasons Juliana tells us (a great chunk of the action is related through monologues). She is an unreliable narrator of the greatest sort, and the remainder of The Other Place proceeds to rip hole after hole in her story and add mystery after mystery to her past (especially when concerning her daughter and son-in-law) in order to uncover how damaged she truly is.
Unfortunately, this is where The Other Place — a gripping psychosexual mystery/medical drama by many accounts — delves a little too much into A Beautiful Mind territory (complete with an academic setting, an imaginary girl, and a doting spouse). The entire midsection of White’s play is little more than a series of reveals in which Juliana’s reality is undermined piece by piece. It’s compelling. It’s sad. By the time the girl in the yellow bikini’s identity is exposed, it’s hard not to be a blubbering mess. But only Metcalf’s cold strength as an actress keeps the play a notch above a particularly exploitative Oprah episode. And just as Juliana’s life slows down and she is forced to face the world as it is — thus becoming really interesting to watch — her tale is over. B
(Tickets: mcctheater.org or 212-279-4200)