A drama in thriller drag

'The Other Place' is one twist short of zowie

L-R, Erica Young, Rachel Fowler and Josh Hartwell
Photo by Michael Ensminger

To quote Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.” To paraphrase the Dead Milkmen, I’m not saying that The Other Place isn’t a good play. It’s a fine play, an all-American play full of good, upstanding people. It’s just that it, like the residents of the trailer park in the song “Stuart,” is content with the equivalent of sitting around watching Mork & Mindy reruns while kicking back a cool Coors 16-ouncer instead of taking it to the next level and blowing some minds.

The advertising for The Other Place is a triumph of misdirection. In only a handful of sentences, it promises mystery, revelation and the collision of realities. Whoever wrote it deserves some sort of Mad Men award for copywriting, because this little blurb piques one’s interest and insinuates itself in one’s mind. The only problem is, like every single ad for every single penile enhancement pill (um, so I’ve heard), it’s all a bunch of hokum.

Sure, Dr. Juliana Smithton (Rachel Fowler) is, in fact, a genetic researcher with a family and a measure of fame, and things do take a disorienting turn for her as the play progresses. And, yes, a cottage on Cape Cod does play a sizeable, uncredited role in the proceedings as well as serve as the location of the play’s climax. But make no mistake, The Other Place is no early Shyamalan-ian mind fuck. It’s a character study in thriller drag. It’s much more The Happening than it is The Sixth Sense.

For those of you new to the notion of theatrical misdirection or with very low thresholds for amazement, allow me to cry out: Spoiler alert! Feel free to skip to the last paragraph where I’m reasonably sure I’ll be finished discussing plot specifics.

After years of research into dementia, Juliana may have synthesized a medication that could eradicate at least one form of the disorder. During one of her presentations on her new potential wonder drug, she has an “episode” and becomes disoriented both temporally and logically. She believes she may have brain cancer, and her oncologist husband, Dr. Ian Smithton ( Josh Hartwell), puts all his skill and heart into supporting her and helping her determine just what is going on in that big brain of hers.

Only, the “episode” at the presentation was not Juliana’s first. As she becomes more unhinged — insisting that her and Ian’s long-lost daughter has suddenly resurfaced and that Ian is having an affair and wants a divorce, among other unrealities — we come to find out that Juliana’s own dementia began many years earlier and quite possibly played a role in the disappearance of their daughter (though even this fact is only arrived at after a tortuously convoluted flashback scene).

If only it turned out that, despite Juliana’s passionate desire to be a mother, they never actually had a daughter. Or that she and Ian did have a daughter who did go missing as a teenager but is now alive and well and living in Poughkeepsie. Then The Other Place would have delivered the kind of layering, the kind of endgame twist that its advertising virtually guarantees. As it is, all of the play’s lies serve not to build to some consciousness-shaking, who’d’ve-thunk-it climax (a la Fight Club or, again, Sixth Sense) but simply exist to mask the fact that The Other Place is a routine drama and nothing else.

So forgive me if I felt ever so slightly ripped off after taking a trip to The Other Place. Though it’s a bill of goods, it is one that is exceptionally well-acted. I’ve seen Fowler in multiple productions over the past few years, and she may be at her best as Juliana. She delivers snarky bitchiness and bewildered confusion with equal aplomb. Mr. Hartwell, who has also earned my praise on numerous occasions, walks a fine tightrope as Ian and, remarkably, balances the need to sincerely act the part while also repeatedly pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes. As all of the other women in the play, Erica Young shows great versatility, and Benaiah Anderson gets an assist as the ancillary male characters.

The Other Place is presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 303-444-7328 or visit www.thedairy.org.

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