Eight times a week, the remarkable Laurie Metcalf lays siege to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre stage and never leaves it for 110 minutes. That's impressive when you consider the play that put her there Jan. 10, Sharr White's The Other Place, runs 80.
She doesn't merely occupy the stage, either — she owns it, and her reign has already begun by the time you file into the theatre. She's patiently waiting for you, sitting there center-stage in a smartly tailored suit, legs crossed, lost in thought. So lost.
The world's not a stage here; rather, the stage's the world — the whole, fragmenting world of Juliana Smithton as it slowly disintegrates in public. A neuroscientist who has discovered in her research a pill that appears to combat dementia, Juliana is peddling her pill to a roomful of doctors and one solitary girl in a yellow string bikini at a medical convention in St. Thomas. The girl throws Juliana off her game, then off the podium, as she starts melting down in midstream-of-consciousness.
White opens The Other Place as if it's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or "The Snake Pit," with a coolly competent person in command, then gradually lets cracks start to show. Juliana turns out to be not the most reliable tour-guide for this muddied mindscape.
It's hard to nail down locations here, in fact, and the cluster of window-frames that Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce call a set is no help. The title ostensibly refers to the family beach-house where Juliana spent happier days with her oncologist-hubby, Ian (Daniel Stern), and their daughter (Zoe Perry), but it's perched precariously on swiftly shifting sand that easily surrenders to another time and another place.
At the after-party held across the street from the theatre at the Copacabana, Metcalf admitted she had no clue how many time-zones she had to juggle in the course of a show. "I never really checked," she admitted, a bit surprised by that omission. "I just don't know. It's a play that calls for technique. It's not realistic, and there's a lot of popping in and out of scenes, and sometimes it just came down to technique."
"Five," said White, answering the question after a fast finger count. "The first part is three interweaving times zones, the second is a separate time zone. So's the third."
His inspiration to write the play was a dare: "I had a friend who challenged me to write this, and I resisted for a long time to write about the subject matter, but the more I delved into it, the more it felt really right. I tell people it's a very personal fiction. It's hard to describe what it's about without giving too much of it away. There is a mystery really at the heart of it in terms of how the structure unfolds."
White is happily adjusting to his status as a new, young Broadway playwright, but he looks the part in his buttoned-down vest, with wife Evelyn, in tow. (Think Jimmy Stewart in "No Time for Comedy.")
"It's still a little unbelievable," he confessed. "I didn't think it would ever really happen."
The play had its Off-Broadway world-premiere by Manhattan Class Company in March 2011 and it's now having a Broadway engagement by Manhattan Theatre Club — a gamut from MCC to MTC, both productions starring Metcalf and helmed by Joe Mantello. "I don't know who the rabbi was, but I'm going to convert," White said of the play's miraculous journey.
Yes, he said to the obvious question, he does have a new play. "It's called The Snow Geese. It's about a family in upstate New York in 1917 who are really at the end of their resources. They were wealthy and they realize how little they've had and for how long they've had very little. It's a play about the end of The Gilded Age, about the disappearance of wealth and what do you do when you think you have so much and then you actually don't have anything at all and how that affects the family dynamic. Really, I think in an odd way, it's a play that mimics what has happened to us in this country now in the last couple of years."
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