NEW YORK — Here on W. 47th Street, in a fascinating play about early-onset dementia, or maybe it's brain cancer, or maybe it's just some non-specific traumatic disorder that flowed from the loss of a daughter, the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Laurie Metcalf is doing perhaps the most terrifyingly intense acting work of her formidable career, playing about the most unreliable narrator you could expect to meet in a theater.
"The Other Place" was written by a lesser-known writer named Sharr White and is directed with unstinting force for the Manhattan Theatre Club by Joe Mantello. Metcalf leads you though the 80-minute proceedings with such astonishing force of will that one emerges from the dark interior of the theater greatly discomforted by the realization that everything her character, whose name is Juliana, has just revealed is, in all likelihood, some variation or another on the completely bogus. This experience is greatly intensified — if that's the right word — by the fact that all three of the characters questioning Juliana's version of events (including Juliana's daughter, who may or may not be alive) are played by the actress Zoe Perry, who happens to be Metcalf's real-life daughter. (Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry is Zoe's father.)
On stage, the gentle, patient, logical Perry reads as the direct opposite of her mother, which is one of this drama's fundamental themes.
To say that Metcalf dominates these proceedings does not do it justice. She arrives at the theater before you do, seated center stage as the house is opening, her lean frame contained by a business suit, looking angrily uncomfortable. For longtime students of Metcalf's work, this opening image suggests one of the actress's most familiar tropes: playing a character convinced she is an interloper and who can't entirely decide whether to be consumed by insecurity or furiously denounce the mercurial qualities of the world in which she does not belong. In other words, Metcalf specializes in characters who can both stand outside of themselves and see what few see, and yet who are totally unable to control their own anger, their own story, in the moment.
For much of her career, that has meant playing tough, lower-middle-class women — her work on television's "Roseanne" is the best-known example — but her performance in Chicago in Lisa D'Amour's "Detroit" was among the most impressive manifestations of how Metcalf can play out the feelings of those of us who cling furiously to some notion of respectability, however bankrupt it seems. Few actors in America can summon up quite like Metcalf the fear that one can feel every single day: a sense that everything one has worked for, or loved for, or gambled for, can slip away in a heartbeat. She is an actress who knows how to play women who can never allow themselves to feel comfortable. Resilience and uncertainty are generally opposites: whether on camera or stage, Metcalf knows how to link them.
This time, Metcalf is playing a biophysicist—a researcher turned drug-company pitchwoman — but that motif is still there. In the play's opening monologue, she is sitting in the Virgin Islands pitching her product to loathsome golfing doctors, even while fixating on a beautiful young woman in a bikini, seated in the front row for her talk. On one hand, this arouses some righteous feminist anger (Who is this girl? Some drug-company funded model or hooker supposed to provide doctor relief?). But on the other, she is surprised by her own cruelty.
"Why do I see something beautiful and scratch it and scratch it until there's nothing left?" she asks of herself.
But then what she knows about reality starts to deteriorate as some kind of debilitating condition takes hold. As her husband (played by Daniel Stern) and doctors quickly discover, she becomes very, very difficult. And nasty. "Are you flirting with suicidal thoughts?" a doctor asks (a doctor played by Metcalf's daughter). "I'm dating them, actually," Juliana replies, dripping with sarcasm. "But they won't put out."
In Metcalf's hands, that fusion of force and bewilderment takes on a rather terrifying intensity — her character's world spins out of control and Metcalf is quite willing to take that ride. From the seats, you find yourself trusting this empathetic character at one moment, especially when she talks about the consequences of a fight with her daughter, and then at other times she seems like some combination of malevolent, egomaniacal and bloody annoying. For one thing, she makes you sit through a lot of scenes about events that probably never even happened, maybe containing non-existent characters, leading you down lots of dead-end paths. Who can like a character who does that to you, especially when the seats you cost good money?
"The Other Place" has a sentimental ending that does not entirely fit its otherwise unstinting sense of honesty about mental distress. It is less than a great play. Nonetheless, this piece allows Metcalf, working with a director who clearly understands her, to rage in a way that people who are suffering some kind of mental degeneration so often rage, slowly killing off the sympathy in others that they are, of course, going to need all the more.
Metcalf builds a woman who can't avoid that, and who also knows that so well that it makes her yet more furious, yet more unreliable, yet more sad, yet more amazing to watch.
"The Other Place" plays on Broadway at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York; manhattantheatreclub.com or call 212-239-6200.
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