Laurie Metcalf has been sitting onstage in a white upholstered chair for a while before the start of "The Other Place." She wears a sleek business suit with a snappy little skirt, and we can tell by the way she crosses her legs that the woman she plays both enjoys and understands precisely their power.
For the next 80 minutes, we watch as this fierce, magnificent actress becomes the laser-point center of Juliana, 52, a brilliant neurological researcher who has what she understates as a "bit of an episode" while delivering a sales pitch/lecture to a medical convention in St. Thomas.
Sharr White's tightly swirling psychological thriller, a hit downtown at MCC Theater in 2011, has transferred to Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway venue to reach the broad audience the drama deserves.
Directed with unflinching stealth and progressive emotional jolts by Joe Mantello ("Other Desert Cities"), the play lives mostly in the internal monologues of Juliana as she tumbles into unknown psychological and medical territory.
The temptation is to say too much about the plot, which intentionally disorients us along with Juliana. But don't mistake this for the pablum that goes down easy with disease-of-the-week theatrics. White, in his Broadway debut, writes in crisp short scenes that fold back on one another with deep and ever-deepening distress.
Daniel Stern beautifully plays her oncologist husband with a dignity that shreds into levels of exasperation and heartbreak. The two younger characters -- The Woman (Zoe Perry) and The Man (John Schiappa) -- are intentionally ambiguous without ever being vague.
Metcalf's Juliana begins tough and funny, oozing a sexuality that cannot be separated from her braininess. Against startling changes of sound and light designs, her body -- including those no-longer-confident legs -- shape-shifts as she is pummeled by delusions and a genuine life-altering trauma. Operating within a honeycomb of overlapping wooden frames, Metcalf transforms from moment to moment and back again, from sublime competence to a helplessness that is hard to watch. But dare you to take your eyes off her.
WHAT "The Other Place"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
BOTTOM LINE Magnificent Metcalf, brief but deep psychological thriller