Stage review: 'The Other Place' a good starter at Off the Wall's new site
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Occasionally, a production of a play has to take second place to, for example, a star actor or some dramatic current event.
In this case, it's to a building. With the perfectly (coincidentally?) named play, "The Other Place," the professional Off the Wall Theater celebrates its move from Washington, Pa., to a new home in a storefront on Main Street in Carnegie. This other place is a handsome new 96-seat thrust stage theater with such additional attractions as a capacious lobby, ample dressing rooms, a scene shop, a well-equipped control booth and plenty of adjacent parking.
There's also plenty of money and sweat equity. The lobby even has a first-class espresso machine and a staff member who knows how to use it.
So kudos to the husband-wife team of Virginia and Hans Gruenert (artistic director and managing director, respectively) for hoisting their 6-year-old company on their backs and moving it north. This brings it into the ambit of the Pittsburgh audience interested in serious theater, contemporary and brand new plays tending more toward art than fluff.
Not that there weren't some in Washington interested in such programming, but not many, nor were there enough Pittsburghers willing to make the 40-minute drive south.
Now in Carnegie, theatergoers will find a season of new plays, continuing with Rajiv Joseph's "Gruesome Playground Injuries," Andrea Lepcio's "Looking for the Pony" and Virginia Wall Gruenert's "Without Ruth" (based on the life of Ruth Haston as told by her daughter, Pittsburgh actor Linda Haston). For an added attraction, they will offer a one-weekend run of the one-woman "Speed Queen" (Dec. 6-8), by and starring Anne Stockton, directed by Austin Pendleton.
Because these are all new or newish plays -- "The Other Place" will be staged on Broadway next month with Laurie Metcalf -- the company's taste can probably be better inferred from its previous five seasons, which included such well-known titles as "Death and the Maiden," "And Baby Makes Seven," " 'Night, Mother" and "How I Learned to Drive."
On top of all this, Off the Wall intends that its new building will become an incubator/host for other small companies. Its space, organization and commitment all suggest welcoming collaboration.
Which brings us to "The Other Place" by Sharr White, an 85-minute drama about Juliana, a capable but controlling neurologist in her 50s afflicted in some way. We meet her describing a breakthrough cancer drug to a room full of doctors on one of those Caribbean junkets, except that she is constantly distracted by a girl in a yellow bikini. This scene is intercut with others lifted from what we take to be Juliana's real life, complete with her evasive oncologist husband (they're getting divorced, she tells us) and angry married daughter.
Soon enough, though gradually, we learn that none of this is exactly as it seems or perhaps even true at all, and there are other plausible reasons for Juliana's truculence, the husband's evasion, etc. In fact, I'd be ultimately hard pressed to sort out reality from delusion, although the play seems to settle for a schema that makes sense for the time being.
My initial irritation at Juliana gradually changed as the play revealed what it had been holding back. A moving scene near the end finds her in what used to be her family's vacation house on Cape Cod, being fed by a total stranger.
Juliana is played by Virginia Wall Gruenert, the artistic director, who apparently acts in one show each year (she writes, too). Her Juliana seemed unfocused to start, not fully realized, but I came to see that was part of the character, not the performance. She is supported brilliantly by Erica Cuenca, who plays four characters (or five or six, depending on just what's real). Mark Conway Thompson is the husband, and Ricardo Vila-Roger fills out the cast.
Gianni Downs is responsible for the ingenious if somewhat ungainly set, with sofa, table and chairs hidden in large boxes that themselves create a unit set for the different scenes that alternate early on. Eventually, the rear wall converts into an expanse of white, a fit metaphor for the life that emerges at the play's end.
"The Other Place" is a sobering experience, given capable life as directed by Melissa Hill Grande. A new theater in Carnegie, though -- that's exhilarating.
First Published October 23, 2012 12:00 am