As a Big Pharma gun-for-hire, Juliana Smithton knows how to engage the doctors while talking up a new anti-dementia drug at a plush Caribbean resort.
She’s an accomplished research scientist presenting her own work. The audience for her lecture (read: sales pitch) is colleagues who are potential customers. But the sudden appearance in the room of a young woman in a yellow string bikini distracts her.
Juliana’s self-deprecating wit grows caustic as she targets the intruder with mean digs that take her off topic until she loses her grip completely and goes terrifyingly silent. Is she suffering a stroke?
Laurie Metcalf’s performance as Juliana in “The Other Place” has both sharpened and deepened since Sharr White’s drama ran off-Broadway nearly two years ago. Given a second outing, now on Broadway under the wing of the Manhattan Theatre Club, the one-act drama still packs a formidable punch.
This must be the only play in which the good news, that one is not dying of brain cancer or stroke, is followed by the shattering diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
That news is delivered by Juliana’s devoted, if frustrated husband, Ian, an oncologist she’s convinced has filed for divorce. It’s the second big crisis of their long marriage, the first having been the disappearance a decade earlier of their teenage daughter.
White introduces both elements through an unfocused lens that gradually clarifies as we come to understand all the forces working to unravel Juliana’s increasingly ravaged mind.
Metcalf’s performance, under Joe Mantello’s sensitive direction, has grown more poignant, but “The Other Place” has lost some power in the interregnum. The most easily identified reason is a significant casting change: Where Dennis Boutsikaris was sharp, even severe as Ian, Daniel Stern is warm-and-fuzzier, less of a foil to Juliana.
“You know, what surprises me almost more than anything else,” Ian tells her when their latest conversation has turned ugly, “is how cruel this thing has made you.”
With Boutsikaris, it was an indictment, however sympathetically offered. With Stern, it’s a white flag of resignation, a very different dynamic.
But I also found myself wanting more from the playwright. A second act, perhaps, that digs deeper into the heart of a marriage on such rocky shoals. Like “The Great God Pan” earlier this season, “The Other Place” is yet another ambitious play that’s maddeningly unfinished.
Through Feb. 24 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include New York weekend and Lance Esplund on art.