Laurie Metcalf relishes her other identities on Broadway

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NEW YORK -- For someone who pretty much worships Laurie Metcalf, Joe Mantello isn't making her life easy in "The Other Place," opening Jan. 10 on Broadway. "I used to leave the stage for a total of, like, 10 seconds," Ms. Metcalf said of her experience in the show. "But we changed that."

Mr. Mantello directed Ms. Metcalf in the off-Broadway premiere of this twisty drama by Sharr White, which Manhattan Theater Club is transferring to the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in leaner and -- from Ms. Metcalf's perspective -- meaner form. She is seated on the stage before the play begins, and now she never leaves it.

"The train pulls out of the station and just goes," she said.

With its fiery confrontations and tearful reunions (of a sort), the part is the kind that gets noticed come awards season. And as Ms. Metcalf reaches a point in her career when the roles she is offered are too often "Andy's Mom" and "Artie's Mom" -- two actual credits on her resume -- she has found a welcome home on the New York, Chicago and London stages. There are worse fates for a 57-year-old actress than having to deal with too much stage time.

Ms. Metcalf won a 2011 Obie Award for "The Other Place," which was produced by the Off the Wall theater company, now in Carnegie, in October. Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson wrote that the play was "a sobering experience."

On Broadway, Ms. Metcalf plays Juliana Smithton, a brilliant biophysicist whose self-described woes involve a missing child, a wonder drug and an unfaithful husband. The rest of the play calls into question some, most or all of the facts in the previous sentence (except for the part about the Obie), and it is up to Ms. Metcalf to convey these contradictory narrative threads while both courting and spurning the audience's sympathy.

Juliana's area of expertise is dementia, and her travails in the play have struck a nerve. "I have never been approached by so many audience members afterward, largely because of the subject matter," Ms. Metcalf said in her dressing room after a rehearsal.

Perhaps because of the intensity she faces both onstage and in those post-show interactions, she sat completely still for much of the interview, unleashing her unmistakable, throaty bark of a laugh only once or twice. The only exceptions involved her rehearsal clothes: She wore a cardigan over a paint-spattered sweatshirt over a T-shirt, and, as she has done throughout her career, Ms. Metcalf peeled away the layers to reach her comfort level.

Or, as White described her approach to the text, "She keeps attacking it with a finer- and finer-grade sandpaper."

The off-Broadway "Other Place," presented by MCC Theater, marked a welcome reunion for Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Mantello, who had directed her on Broadway in "November," David Mamet's 2008 political comedy. "On opening night of 'November,' " Mr. Mantello said, "I wrote her a note saying, 'I will go anywhere any time to work with you again.' "

His itch to collaborate with her actually predates that note by some 24 years. That's when Ms. Metcalf, a native of Edwardsville, Ill., came to New York City to appear in a revival of Lanford Wilson's play "Balm in Gilead." The production had originated in Chicago as an early effort by the Steppenwolf Theater Company, which was founded by some of her classmates at Illinois State University; she became a charter member of the group.

"Gilead" featured a 20-minute monologue by Ms. Metcalf, who played the naive prostitute Darlene, for which she was presented her first Obie. (She was then married to one of the three Steppenwolf founders, Jeff Perry; their daughter, Zoe Perry, also appears in "The Other Place.")

"Before I met her, my one goal in life was to work with her," Mr. Mantello said. "When I graduated from drama school, I came to New York and saw her in 'Balm in Gilead' three or four times. It completely changed the way I felt about acting."

It was the monologue that launched a thousand casting calls. Among the other enthusiasts were Frank Rich of The New York Times, who called it "one of the year's most memorable theatrical events," and the movie director Susan Seidelman, who quickly cast Ms. Metcalf in "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Making Mr. Right." She found herself working steadily in television and film, in long runs (nine seasons as the title character's sister on "Roseanne," winning three Emmy Awards) as well as short runs (exactly one episode as a "Saturday Night Live" cast member), eventually playing both sweet moms (the "Toy Story" films) and not-so-sweet moms ("Scream 2").

But she also appeared in more than 35 Steppenwolf productions along the way. The most recent of these, Lisa D'Amour's caustic comedy "Detroit," appeared certain to return Ms. Metcalf to Broadway last year. She appeared in "Detroit" both in Chicago and in London, but a planned New York transfer fell through, and the play opened in New York at Playwrights Horizons in an entirely new production.

This was just one of several recent Broadway near misses for Ms. Metcalf. She was featured in two Neil Simon plays scheduled to play in repertory in 2009, but "Brighton Beach Memoirs" closed within a week, and "Broadway Bound" never made it out of the rehearsal room. And she was originally slated to star with Patti LuPone in Mr. Mamet's new play, "The Anarchist"; once word came about the "Other Place" transfer, however, she backed out and was replaced by Debra Winger.

"The Anarchist" closed after a mere 17 performances (not including previews). "I still am regretting the fact that I didn't get to work with Patti and David in the same room," she said. "And I hope I will someday."

Meanwhile "The Other Place" spurred her to do a fair amount of scientific research. "I try to read as much as I can and jot down symptoms," she said. "Then I go back to the script and say, 'If I were to use that in the play, where would I put that in?' I love the building part of rehearsals, even though I drive myself crazy during it."

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