Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Other Place

The Other Place, which ran last spring at MCC and which opens tomorrow night on Broadway at MTC's Friedman Theatre, has been described as a "psychological thriller" and a "dark comedy." It struck me as neither. The mystery at the center of the play--the relevance of the woman in the yellow bikini that the main character thinks she sees during the first episode of dementia she experiences--takes its time unfolding, but hardly in a "thrilling" sort of way. Rather, The Other Place creeps up on you, building in ways that are at once enormously compelling and increasingly uncomfortable, before reaching a gentle, sad conclusion. As for "dark comedy"? Um, no. Sure, there were some light moments, and some very funny asides. But more often than big collective chortles were inappropriate ones emanating from solitary members of the audience at jarringly weird times. The Other Place is a highly disorienting play made up of increasingly uncomfortable moments where laughter would help, but isn't encouraged by the playwright, performers, or director.

But I suppose marketing the show this way would be utterly disastrous. And that would be a shame, because The Other Place is worth seeing: it's tightly written by Sharr White, beautifully acted by a small and deeply committed company, and directed with cutting insight by Joe Mantello.

It is also about dementia, which is no secret, but which isn't easy to sell to the masses, either. We all have our stories, don't we? The ones about family members, friends, or loved ones who, sometimes very quickly and sometimes at a snail's pace, descend into a sort of twilight of the mind that initially creeps around the edges ("What day is it?")  and ends up taking over completely, in the most painful and disturbing of ways ("Who are you, again? My husband, you say?"). The subject has certainly been tackled before, in various entertainment forms that range from absurdist and slapsticky (Where's Poppa?), to mawkishly sentimental (Driving Miss Daisy), to heartbreaking.

Full disclosure: I found The Other Place to be an excellent example of the heartbreaking variety, which doesn't necessarily mean that you will, too. Sometimes, art is all about what hits you, and why, and when; timing, here, is of the essence. I've watched a number of older family members slide into dementia in the course of my life, and am in the process of watching it again. My personal experience has thus caused The Other Place to stay with me in a way that it would perhaps not have a year ago. But then, I suppose this applies to just about everything we see and interpret.

Seeing and interpreting are central to the show, which jumps around in time and shifts from scene to scene in terms of perspective, mood, and allegiance to characters. The exceptional Laurie Metcalf plays Juliana Smithton, a biophysicist in her early 50s who is married to a successful oncologist (the surprisingly nuanced Daniel Stern), works for a pharmaceutical company that (cruelly, ironically) sells a drug that aids with dementia, and has deeply conflicted feelings about her daughter, with whom she has had no contact for a decade. Onstage before the house opens and there until the curtain call, Metcalf does an exceptional job of depicting a terse, caustic, highly efficient woman who slides suddenly--and with terrifying rapidity--into a dementia that makes her worse in every way: she becomes disoriented and aphasic, delusional and paranoid. She also becomes viciously nasty, snidely condescending, and shrilly combative, to the point where you might ask yourself--as I did midway through the show--why we should even bother with such a character.

But that's what dementia does, and the play follows the twists and turns of the disease and its impact on Juliana and her husband bravely and without a lot of pandering to the audience. It is a testament to all involved with this production that by the end of the show, Juliana--along with the circle of characters who suffer along with her--earns our understanding, our support, our sympathy.

She also makes us question our own hold on reality. Are the scenes we are being shown actually happening? Is what we are left with at the end of the play true at all? Is the scene, for example, where Juliana sits on the floor being fed Chinese food taking place where the production is telling us it is taking place, or is Juliana in a nursing home being fed something much blander by a kind orderly? The more I think about The Other Place the less I am sure about any of it.

The fact that I began to cry at the curtain call last night surprised the hell out of me. I was drawn in to the play deeply enough that I didn't think much about my emotional reaction to it until it was over. And, to reiterate, the sorrow that the play has left me with is not just about the play itself. But then again, the fact that The Other Place--for all its twists, turns, and slightly inaccurate marketing descriptions--shook me as deeply as it did is perhaps the most superlative praise I can give a production and the people involved in it.

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