Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf
in The Other Place
(© Joan Marcus)
Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf
in The Other Place
(© Joan Marcus)
Promising playwright Sharr White is keeping top-notch company with his Off-Broadway debut, The Other Place, now receiving its world premiere via MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in a production directed by Tony winner Joe Mantello and starring Emmy Award winner and stage veteran Laurie Metcalf.

The actress gives a splendid performance as Julianna Smithton, a research scientist whose own neurological problems toss her into a tempest of her own mind. It's a potent premise that unfolds admirably in the first half of this 75-minute drama, but spins off its axis as it heads toward its denouement.

Juliana is a tough middle-aged researcher who becomes mentally unglued during a conference in the Virgin Islands when she seems to see a young woman in a yellow bikini in the audience of her lecture. Convinced she has brain cancer, a disease Juliana believes is in her gene pool, she returns home to Boston, where she swears to her husband, Ian (Dennis Boutsikaris), that she has reconnected with their estranged daughter, Laurel (Aya Cash).

Soon, Juliana finds words, memories, even her own identity slipping away as she steers herself into a confrontation with her past at the "other place" of the title -- her family's former weekend home on Cape Cod. But once Juliana's mystery illness has been identified, Mantello can't keep The Other Place from stumbling toward a solution that seems too easy.

At various points, White's drama resembles Wit, as it shows how illness turns a strong woman vulnerable. (It's also reminiscent of the film Shutter Island in its depiction of a mind unable to cope with a painful reality.) Indeed, White's voice and Juliana's character are most vividly alive when the play depicts the maze that Juliana's mind has become, in short scenes with her husband, doctor (also played by Cash), and daughter that alternate with monologues describing the ill-fated lecture. (Eugene Lee plays on that labyrinthine quality with his set, a semicircle of wooden frames that lights up when scenes change and that, for some reason, obscures William Cusick's projections.)

Cash (who plays a third role) and John Schiappa in multiple roles both come through with sensitive performances, while Boutsikaris (who played Metcalf's husband in last season's short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs revival) is moving as Juliana's beleaguered spouse.

Still, it's Metcalf, onstage the entire time, who drives the action with her stirring portrayal. Whether she's tossing off a cutting remark or ravenously eating Chinese takeout, she never fails to convey her character's searing internal pain.