They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but as Sharr White's The Other Place, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, proves it's an even more terrible thing to lose. Especially a mind as brilliant as the one that belongs to Juliana Smithton (the extraordinary Laurie Metcalf), a scientific researcher who begins to develop "episodes" while delivering a sales pitch for a dementia drug.
During this presentation, which takes up the first 10 minutes of the show, Smithton comes across as a smart, clinical, and slightly superior woman. Shortly after she returns home from her meeting, however, Juliana's condition worsens, as she lashes out and becomes easily confused, and acts very differently from how we first see her.
It soon becomes abundantly clear that we can't believe everything (or maybe anything) Juliana tells anyone, such as whether her seemingly sympathetic doctor-husband Ian (Daniel Stern) is having an affair or whether she's actually receiving phone calls from her long-lost daughter Laurel (Zoe Perry), who is supposedly now married to Juliana's former assistant, Richard (John Schiappa).
Instead of waiting for the end of the 75-minute work to reveal the truth about these situations – as well as Juliana's somewhat predictable medical condition – White spills the beans about halfway through the play. At first, that seems like an inauspicious decision, robbing the piece of any potential suspense. But, ultimately, it makes this work more affecting, and especially impactful during the show's penultimate scene, in which Juliana returns to her former Cape Cod weekend home (aka "the other place").
Repeating his directorial duties from the show's premiere in 2010 (by MCC Theater at the much smaller Lucille Lortel Theatre), the ever-gifted Joe Mantello wisely keeps the work focused on its actors, with a minimal amount of scenic distraction. Better still, his decision to recast two of the key players proves to be just the right move. Stern brings a devastating mix of desperation and devotion to the role of Ian, who almost cannot bear the disintegration of his wife. And although the triple-cast Perry impresses in her early scene as Laurel, perhaps playing off her relationship with her real-life mother, Metcalf, she really shines during her late-in-the-play, one-on-one meeting with the confused Juliana. Perry's hairpin emotional turns, as her character finds herself quickly moving from fear to anger to compassion, are simply stunning, and the resulting scene is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Still, it's Metcalf (onstage for the entire show) who raises The Other Place to the level of must-see drama. Exploring every facet of Juliana's humanity – the good, bad, and the ugly – this consummate actress is completely fearless, never playing for unwanted sympathy, yet earning the audience's empathy as the tragedies of Juliana's past and present come crashing through. And as Juliana faces an uncertain future, audiences can be certain they're witnessing one of the season's greatest performances.