Monday, March 11, 2013

Staging Dementia: MTC’s The Other Place

John Schiappa and Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, at the Manhattan Theatre Club (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Putting us in the perspective of a character whose point of view is skewed in some way by radical physical or psychological distress poses a tricky challenge for playwrights and directors. (It’s the motivation for the first experiments in expressionism in the movies: the plot of the first expressionistic film, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, turns out to be a paranoid fantasy concocted by an institutionalized madman.) Arthur Kopit tried it back in the seventies with Wings, which attempted to sketch the world as a woman who’s had a stroke experiences it, and both he and the actress, Constance Cummings, received rave notices – though the fact that the play is revived so seldom suggests that it wasn’t as successful as critics believed at the time. (I didn’t think Cummings was very good either.) Playwright Sharr White and actress Laurie Metcalf have received the same kind of praise for The Other Place, which closed two weeks ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The play concerns Juliana, a woman in her early fifties with a rare kind of dementia that not only causes paranoid outbursts – the first occuring at a medical conference where Juliana, a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, is (ironically) pitching a new neurological drug – but also provokes her into believing that her husband, Ian (Bill Pullman, in an extraordinarily sensitive performance), is cheating on her with a younger woman and planning to divorce her and, most dramatically, that their teenage daughter, who disappeared a decade ago, has contacted her.

White’s strategy is to keep us in Juliana’s point of view for roughly the first half of the play’s seventy minutes so that we think initially that Juliana’s marriage is falling apart and that her daughter Laurel did marry the man – Juliana’s post-doc at the time – whom she and Ian originally accused of running off with the girl, on what turns out to have been flimsy evidence. This decision is effective in a fairly basic mystery-suspense way, like the delusions the filmmakers want us to accept at first as reality in movies like A Beautiful Mind and Shutter Island, but I’m not sure that we gain enough from the confusion to make it worthwhile. Moreover, the presentation of Juliana in the throes of dementia, which makes her mean, insulting and sarcastic, is so alienating that it works against our sympathy for the character. Metcalf’s performance is technically impressive from the outset, and she has a gift for playing sharp-tongued women, the kind whose eyebrow is permanently raised. But for much of the play I kept thinking about the problem I always have with the characters in Merrily We Roll Along – both the Kaufman and Hart original and the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical version – who are so insufferable that by the time we find out what idealistic sweeties they once were we’ve stopped caring. At one point I wondered if the play would work better if we had more of a sense of what Juliana was like before the dementia set in.  And not five minutes later White introduced a flashback to the last day she saw her daughter – to the dreadful fight between them that provoked Laurel to run away and (we assume) get murdered by some psychopath who picked her up on the road.

Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The flashback, which is extremely well written, rescues the play. It also permits Metcalf to get away from Juliana’s disarming symptoms and develop the character that those symptoms distract us from. Her performance moves from skillfulness to genuine brilliance, culminating in a tour de force scene in which Juliana returns to the Cape Cod house – “the other place” (the title has more than one meaning) – that she and her family were living in when Laurel vanished. It’s now inhabited by another woman who is sharing ownership with the husband she’s now bitterly divorced from and whom Juliana believes to be her grown-up, long-estranged daughter. (Zoe Perry plays this role, which is one of three characters, identified in the program collectively as The Woman, among whom she shifts in the course of the evening. She’s excellent in all three but especially in this one.) White’s finest achievement as a playwright is the way he links this woman to the Juliana-Laurel story.  The almost casual revelation, earlier in the play, that the post-doc killed himself five or six years ago – which seems meant to imply that the accusations leveled against him ruined his life – feels like a red herring, but the Cape Cod dweller’s struggle to get beyond her own anguish to help out a strange woman suffering from delusions she doesn’t understand at first is very moving. And the play’s final (visual) revelation, which involves the identity of the woman, clad in a yellow bikini, Juliana fantasizes seeing in the audience at the medical conference is even more affecting. 

Joe Mantello directed the show, which has a superb, suggestive set by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce made up of overlapping metallic-looking crates that cage in the acting area and partially hide a cyclorama on which, at key moments, William Cusick’s projections appear.  (When the audience walks into the theatre, these take the form of ominously drifting white and black clouds.) It is, I think, a fine production of a play that finds itself in the second half and proceeds from what seems too much like dramatic gimmickry to a legitimate probing of the effects of loss.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment