CAMBRIDGE — “Yes I’m perfectly fine, I think it’s brain cancer.” That line from Sharr White’s 2011 play, “The Other Place,” could just stop you in your tracks, and it’s not the only one. After a while, you might wonder why the usher failed to equip you with a rewind button, or at least one labeled stop, when she showed you to your seat. “The Other Place” keeps jumping from one place to another, and from one story to another, and you can’t believe everything you see and hear.
Eventually, White takes you to “the other place” (it’s on Cape Cod) and lets you get your bearings, which is almost too bad, since disorientation is replaced by sentiment. And the otherwise fine 90-minute (with no intermission) production from the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater that’s now up at Central Square Theater doesn’t maintain the suspense as long as it might.
Juliana is a biophysicist — “sharply charismatic,” says the playwright — in her early 50s, and at the beginning of the play, she’s giving a lecture in the Virgin Islands, or maybe she’s promoting a new protein drug to fight dementia. Juliana has had an “episode,” she tells her oncologist husband, Ian, whom she’s divorcing. She carries on almost simultaneous conversations with a Dr. Teller — what kind of doctor isn’t clear — and on the phone with her estranged, Mahler-addicted daughter, Laurel, who ran off with Juliana’s postdoctoral scholar and had twins.
At least, that’s what Juliana tells us. But no matter who she’s talking to, she always seems to be having an “other” conversation. At times, “The Other Place” promises to be a mystery story with Juliana as the detective who’s going to figure out why Ian is so adamant that she shouldn’t reconnect with Laurel. At others, it seems we’re in some “other” place, one reminiscent of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.”
Janie E. Howland’s minimal set — and minimal is what the playwright calls for — comprises a dining table and chairs to represent Ian and Juliana’s house plus a pair of additional chairs where Juliana sits for her sessions with Dr. Teller. The rear wall is a scrim through which Laurel and her husband, Richard, can be seen talking to Juliana on the phone. Chris Brusberg’s lighting changes provide clear signals as to which reality Juliana is in.
But whereas White asks that, “In the first scenes especially, the pacing of this play should stay crisp, tense, and impulsive,” the Nora/Underground Railway production, as directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, is casual, leisurely, and comic. And for all that Debra Wise is a terrifically accomplished Juliana, she plays to the audience in a way that soon lets the cat out of the bag.
David DeBeck as a haggard-looking Ian also drops the unavoidable odd clue (it’s a peculiarity of the play that what’s ambiguous on the page cannot be so in performance, since the actor knows the truth about Ian), but he matches Wise’s authority. Angie Jepson seems too young for Dr. Teller; she fares better as Laurel and best of all as a woman offering comfort and Chinese food toward the end of the play. Jaime Carrillo is an effectively harassed Richard.
Indeed, once the mystery is unlocked, all four actors combine to heartwarming effect. But if you want a clue early on, listen closely to the pre-curtain Mahler that sound designer David Remedios has chosen.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.