Mad scenes, as the opera composers of the bel canto era well knew, make great opportunities for divas. I had never previously thought of Laurie Metcalf—an actress who always seems to come bearing an ineffable, hardheaded reality—as a diva. Yet here she is, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway outpost, in Sharr White’s The Other Place (Friedman Theatre), a play in which the heroine’s apparently hardheaded grasp of the real world around her gets challenged as being only a species of dementia. Facts are toyed with; alternative explanations of what’s occurring are presented; scenes flash back and flash forward to help you assemble a plausible picture from the pieces of this puzzle.
The trouble is that White’s script doesn’t really offer much worth explaining. Aside from its trickiness, its principal function is to give a leading actress of Metcalf’s tough-minded straightforwardness an opportunity to do the demented-diva trip. This is a script for actresses who can display all the emotional colors of an opera heroine gone lunatic from grief. Expertly negotiating the twists and turns of White’s puzzle game, Metcalf proves that she can make those colors succeed one another vibrantly. To demand that she also handle the customary coloratura trills and high C’s would be petty.
A case history with a complex backstory, The Other Place offers excuses rather than dramatic justifications for its heroine Juliana’s problematic condition. A specific traumatic thing has happened to her, as a result of something that she may or may not have simply imagined, and now she imagines more, and more disturbing, things. At least so says her oncologist husband (Daniel Stern).
A medical-research physician who shares the patent on an important drug for restoring damaged DNA, she thinks she has brain cancer; he, and the shrink he sends her to (Zoe Perry), think she has dementia. I think that her relentless asperity—part of her no-nonsense scientific fact-facing—would have made living with her an agonizing haul long before any dementia set in, which makes his devotion to her rather puzzling. Stern’s avuncular woolliness doesn’t make it seem any more plausible, and the splashy media effects in Joe Mantello’s production don’t make the evening more riveting. The multihued flair of Metcalf’s performance notwithstanding, you might prefer to stay home and watch Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, which is less quick with the sharp-edged quips but perhaps more gratifying overall.