BWW Review: THE OTHER PLACE Misses The Mark
I've always liked the intimacy of the Neuhaus stage at the Alley Theatre. I was left feeling like I witnessed real theatre magic through the special effects, interesting dialogue, and over the top violence in LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE, and felt hopeful and inspired by the end of ROCK N' ROLL. But THE OTHER PLACE, written by Sharr White and directed by Don Stephenson, didn't really leave me thinking or feeling anything special after seeing it. It seemed more like an acting exercise for the talented cast rather than a play that would provide any type of catharsis for the audience. The characters and dialogue are mostly interesting, but I found that I didn't care much about Juliana (Josie de Guzman) or most of the other characters after about the halfway mark of the play.
The story revolves around Juliana, a scientist turned pharmaceutical business woman who is pitching a new drug to help battle dementia. Through a series of emotional outbursts and disorienting shifts, we find out that Juliana, who thought she was suffering from a brain tumor, is actually suffering from dementia. She is immediately unlikeable as a character. The lights come up on a marvelously minimalistic set designed by Michael Schweikardt. A glorious projection lights up the upstage wall, and Juliana narrates and plays out a pitch and presentation regarding the new drug she's created. In the subsequent scenes, we find out how insensitive Juliana is, despite her sickness. It's hard to care about her once we see her belittle, blame, and falsely accuse her husband, Ian (John Jellison). Juliana tells her doctor (Ashley Austin Morris) and Ian that she has been having phone conversations with her missing child, Laurel. We soon realize that we can't trust what Juliana tells us, and she is not really having these conversations with her daughter. Juliana discusses returning to "the other place" which is the house on Cape Cod where they used to live, and where her and Ian's daughter went missing. When she finally does reach their old house, she falsely identifies the new owner as her daughter and proceeds to treat her as such.
The acting of the show doesn't seem to be the basis of why I felt indifferent toward the characters. The two-time Tony Award nominee Josie de Guzman gives the strong and intelligent Juliana a unique and realistic quirkiness. She finds the comedy in each scene, uses her voice effectively to heighten tension, and gradually peels back the confidence of Juliana's ability to control her own environment. These qualities are exemplified in such scenes like one of the initial exchanges between her and her character's husband, Ian. These seem to be the only humanizing elements about her. The rest of the time, the character gives us fewer and fewer reasons to like her. This wasn't a character you could even like to dislike. Ian is the sentimental oncologist husband of Juliana. He is tormented by the effects of the slow deterioration of his wife's mind. He must cope with his wife's repeated accusations of infidelity, her demented episodes that require him to relive the past, and her blaming him for their daughter's disappearance. Ian breaks down during one of the aforementioned exchanges and during that moment, I empathized with his character. However, these exchanges could have easily occurred without either partner suffering from dementia, save the blatant talk about her sickness. Ashley Austin Morris plays multiple characters including Juliana's doctor and the woman Juliana thinks is her daughter near the end of the play. Morris's portrayals were engaging and showcased her versatility. Morris has a slightly raspy quality in her voice that is unique and refreshing. She also plays the new owner of the Cape Cod house. I have a serious problem with the story at this point in the play. Why doesn't the new owner fear for her life when she sees a strange woman in her house and realizes that something is clearly wrong with the intruder? There is some concern on the surface, but this person would have fought hard to get the cops on the phone in reality. Nick Farco is a joy to watch on stage, but wasn't on stage enough. I recently saw him in SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS at Stark Naked Theatre, and with that frame of reference could tell he was underutilized as an actor in this production. I hope to see him in other roles at the Alley in the future.
Despite Josie de Guzman expertly showing the character's realizations unfolding in each scene, I didn't feel like I could connect or empathize in any way to her character in THE OTHER PLACE. Most of the other characters were there to serve Juliana, so by the end of the play, Ian was the only character I cared about.
The lighting, set, costumes, and sound were outstanding and helped move the audience in and out of shifts on stage that paralleled the disorientation that occurred in Juliana's mind. The acting was everything you'd expect in an Alley production, but the story didn't allow for the audience to connect with the characters in a meaningful way. But as always, I encourage you to check it out for yourselves.
THE OTHER PLACE
By Sharr White
Directed by Don Stephenson
October 28 - Through November 15, 2015
Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design: Stephen Terry
Projection Design: Sven Ortel
New York Casting: STEWART/WHITLEY
Stage Manager: Elizabeth M. Berther
Assistant Director: Brandon Weinbrenner