Religious devotion isn’t a requirement for attending the theater—thank God—but watching a play demands that we take much on faith. We trust that characters are who they say they are, we accept that a few sticks of furniture constitute a room, we believe that the scenes are really occurring. Most playwrights seem grateful for this audience gullibility, but a few—Genet, Dürrenmatt, Albee, Stoppard, etc.—turn this credulity to their advantage and do it with such skill that we feel positively grateful to have been duped.
We shouldn’t add Sharr White to this storied list yet, but in his New York debut, The Other Place, produced by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, he ably toys with audience assumptions and expectations. As the play begins, we meet Juliana Smithton (a commanding Laurie Metcalf), a research scientist whom you might call authoritative and opinionated or might simply label a bitch. She has arrived on St. Thomas to pitch a group of doctors on an anti-dementia drug she has developed. But the lecture goes awry and Juliana returns to Boston, anticipating the diagnosis of the brain cancer that killed her father and grandmother.
So far, The Other Place anticipates the arc of the typical disease play and will likely put MCC devotees in mind of Wit. How will this imperious woman come to terms with her illness? Will she reconcile with her estranged husband and daughter? Will her suffering humanize her? But just as we settle in to this familiar scenario, White adroitly flips the script and we must question everything we’ve come to believe about his characters and plot.
The play, directed by Joe Mantello, doesn’t let us linger too long in that perfect uncertainty—what the Greeks would call aporia—and the second half retreats into comforting realism. Some of the writing is merely slick, but Mantello and his cast—Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris as her husband, Aya Cash and John Schiappa in various roles—mostly work against the script’s weak points. And not even a mawkish ending can counteract the wonderful surprise of the play’s middle, in which we the audience collectively discovered we’d been had. And that we’d liked it.