Laurie Metcalf, Daniel Stern and Zoe Perry in a scene from The Other
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
This is one of those shows where the leading actress, in this case Laurie Metcalf, never leaves the stage because she’s got one of those roles that actresses dream of, she goes mad, right before your fascinated, astonished eyes, starting out in six-inch heel, patent leather, platform shoes and ending barefoot, as telling a journey as what goes on at the top of her svelte physiognomy. She is Juliana Smithton, brilliant biomedical researcher, brilliant pitchwoman for the company’s brilliant products dealing with mental well-being. Playwright Sharr White, insightful, balancing the amusing with the scary, thanks to his acting training and experience, knows how to plan, to pace, to feed us and it’s superbly expert. We are in good hands. Even more instantly assuring, veteran designer Eugene Lee and co-designer Edward Pierce have surrounded the acting space with a dazzling puzzle of a setting, countless window frames layered upon each other to create a maze of shattered apertures through which we see fitfully, as if we were dwelling in a giant brain as seen by someone whose viewpoint is crazed.
And Juliana is. Crazed. She is perfectly lucid walking us through her slide presentation until she is distracted by a girl in a yellow bikini among her sober garmented conference attendees. We don’t see that girl. Neither does anyone else. But Juliana does. And when her husband, Ian, a doctor, (excellent Daniel Stern) arrives to help her make a graceful exit she turns on him. He’s divorcing her, why is he here? Why hasn’t he done something about that man (John Schiappa) with their daughter? As a matter of fact, what is that person with the clipboard think she’s doing trying to pry personal information out of her? (This is Zoe Perry, who we learn from the program is Laurie Metcalf’s daughter making her Broadway debut. She plays four roles, each nicely shaded. This time, she’s a young doctor. Other times, she’s Juliana’s reason for her madness, her missing daughter. Another time, she’s a lovely, shocked, kindly stranger who now lives in “The Other Place,” the country place Juliana and Ian owned. In all her roles, she’s in need of confidence building.)
That is not Metcalf’s problem one iota. Her performance is fiercely expansive in her entire corpus. She makes us believe that the people around her are bananas. She never succumbs to the hambone cliché of acting mad. She does the opposite. As any mad person could tell you to do because, of course, you are Not mad. You are perfectly fine. Just get that girl in the yellow bikini out of her damn audience. And everything will be fine. And that ex-husband, who needs him. Get him away from me. And my daughter – my daughter living what that man, my ex-lover, twice her age – she won’t call me, she won’t speak to me.
Mesmerized audience members realize bit by bit that Juliana, terrifyingly familiar, reminds them much too much of perfectly fine friends, perfectly fine family. They’ve even experienced some moments – better not to think about that. It is no wonder that director Joe Mantello, in tightly maintaining his sanity and ours, brings his show to a standing ovation. The Manhattan Theatre Club production is top flight in every detail, David Zinn’s storytelling costumes, Justin Townsend’s story-pinpointing lighting, William Cusick’s carefully confusing projections, as well as his over-the-top closing, a deliberate “Just in case” moment. Something tells me Sharr White’s The Other Place will travel on every place.
The Other Place (through February 24)
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com