Laurie Metcalf has a rare gift among actors: she doesn’t ask that we like her. Her latest display of toughness comes in Sharr White’s challenging, ultimately heart-catching The Other Place, which has opened on Broadway, courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club, after a 2011 production with Metcalf and a somewhat different cast off-Broadway.
Metcalf is Juliana Smithton, a research scientist turned pharmaceuticals saleswoman. As we meet her, she is giving a pitch to a convention of physicians in the Virgin Islands. Smartly attired in a two-piece suit, she subsequently relates how she suffered an “episode” during the speech, which led her to believe she had brain cancer. As she relates such details, we start to sense that her grasp of reality is shaky.
Back home in Boston, she consults a physician, who is a colleague of her philandering, soon-to-be ex-husband, Ian. Juliana turns prickly when the physician plies her with even the gentlest of queries.
As she begins confusing past and present, and displays signs of paranoia, Juliana obsesses over her daughter, Laurel, who disappeared at the age of 15. Juliana’s unravelling becomes nearly complete when she shows up at The Other Place: a Cape Cod weekend house long owned by her family but sold years before by her and her husband, who is imbued with patient dignity by Daniel Stern. This scene threatens to transport us to the land of cheap television drama but Metcalf has so effectively kept all sappiness at bay that when the tears come, they are earned.
The cast, including Zoe Perry and John Sciappa in a variety of roles, moves efficiently across the set: a congeries of window frames opening eventually on to a more realistic Cape Cod structure. No one in New York can stage such a story better than the director here, Joe Mantello. Nothing is a millimetre out-of-kilter. Such precision is a devastating counterpoint to the chaos of Juliana’s grief.