01/11/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

'The Other Place': Laurie Metcalf Explores the Dark Side of the Mind

On the surface of The Other Place, Sharr White's terrifying and ultimately poignant play, Juliana's life is spinning out of control. Her profligate husband is divorcing her; she has brain cancer; and her daughter won't speak to her. What lies beneath the surface is even more frightening, and in a superb performance Laurie Metcalf explores every hidden corner of the human mind.

It is difficult to discuss White's engrossing play without spoiling for prospective audiences all that befalls Juliana, a Boston neurologist, as she attempts to navigate the torturous twists and turns her life takes. The chemistry that holds our perception of reality is precarious at best, and Metcalf's tour-de-force is a chilling portrait of what happens when the formula is out of balance.

The mystery surrounding The Other Place, which the Manhattan Theater Club opened on Broadway Thursday night, begins as the audience enters the theater. Juliana is sitting in a chair at center stage fiddling with a hand-held device -- maybe texting or catching up on her e-mails or possibly playing "Angry Birds." A backdrop of empty window frames, all of disparate sizes, are nailed together to create a sort of semi-circular wall behind her. Above them, a video of storm clouds rolling across the sky is played on a loop.

As the play begins, Juliana, now in the employ of Big Pharma, explains she is in St. Thomas at a convention of doctors to present a new pill for which her company has high hopes in treating brain disease. She confides that she is in the middle of a divorce and has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She also tries to phone her daughter, from whom she is estranged.

As Juliana starts her sales pitch to an audience consisting solely of male doctors, she notices an attractive young woman wearing nothing but a yellow bikini sitting at the back of the conference room. The play then rewinds and fast-forwards to scenes of screaming fights with her husband, Ian, meetings with her oncologist, and strained conversations with her daughter and the older man the daughter married.

But as these scenes play out, there is a growing suspicion that all is not quite what it seems. White is a crafty and adroit playwright and she teases out the revelations that transform The Other Place from a melodrama about a dysfunctional family breaking up into a gut-wrenching turn of events that is at once scary and touching. Is Juliana's husband divorcing her? Is her new, young, pretty female doctor actually an oncologist? Does she even have a daughter? Is Yellow Bikini really there?

The always reliable Joe Mantello has directed the play as if it's a thriller, which in a way it is. He moves the action along at an almost breakneck speed, possibly even too fast in the opening scenes, which jump from present to past to future with such rapidity it is not always immediately clear exactly where Juliana is in time. But he never loses sight of the emotional heart of the story that unfolds.

Juliana is one of the more complex characters to appear onstage in a while, and Metcalf, moving seamlessly from rage to sarcasm to paranoia to submission, succeeds in creating a figure for whom one can only feel pity and compassion. Daniel Stern is mostly convincing as Ian, but is better in some scenes than others, and Zoe Perry delivers fine turns in three different roles.