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The 2013 MTC season opens with a strange import from that "other place"

There's something oddly "b-grade" about this package. It's like a disease-of-the-week telemovie meets Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but all carried through with a straight face. It's not bad, per se – Catherine McClements' performance is authoritative, and director Nadia Tass ably maintains a suspenseful atmosphere throughout – it's just that The Other Place appears to have so few artistic ambitions and so little that would be inherently interesting to local audiences that it's hard to see why the MTC, the state's peak theatre company, should have wanted to produce it.

Dr Juliana Smithton is a medical research scientist who has developed a new drug for the treatment of certain kinds of dementia. She's now on the medical conference circuit, pitching her cure in exotic hotel complexes around the world.

Terse but professional, a business woman as much as a scientist, the doctor – pushing brusquely through the fourth wall – begins by describing to us a strange incident that happened at a conference on the Caribbean island of St Thomas. A woman in a skimpy yellow bikini, she says, simply vanished before her eyes.

At this time, she tells us, the rest of her life was taking a similar turn toward the strange. She thought her husband was divorcing her, though he – an oncologist – denied it, and that her daughter had run off with a medical research assistant (though, again, her husband said it wasn't true).

She was convinced, she tells us, that she had "brain cancer". The truth, however, was much closer to home: early-onset dementia.

As Juliana, McClements navigates the long, bare stage with crisp efficiency and her character's faintly ridiculous psychological ordeal with understated empathy, making the most of a role that could so easily have degenerated into hysterical hamming. David Roberts, alas, as Juliana's husband, does appear to succumb to his material, and is far too much the mug, stomping about and perpetually straightening his tie, to be taken seriously.

After Juliana's true, ironic condition is revealed, the script heads into darker territory as this woman who was once so self-possessed is made to confront the reality of her daughter's disappearance from "the other place", Juliana's portentous name for their Cape Cod summer house.

American playwright Sharr White's interest seems strictly commercial, and he has little to say about dementia, medicine, memory or even his own characters, who are given only the barest sense of autonomy. The play's dramatic and emotional effect relies heavily on coincidental association, as plays with a strictly commercial ambition often do, as though, because success always has something inexplicable about it, playwrights who crave it must forever pay homage to the accidental in life.

One effect – unintended no doubt – of this excess of association is that Juliana's poor treatment of her daughter comes to seem coincidentally relevant to the dementia, as though it were causally related. Nadia Tass's direction is sharp and each scene moves swiftly to its point, but in this swiftness and by stripping back the set and props to a bare minimum, this bizarre moral of White's is only brought further into relief.

I can see this energetic tale of wonder drugs and mental disintegration having at least generic appeal in that other place, the United States – see for instance Next to Normal – but it's a strange choice for the MTC. It's particularly odd as this is Brett Sheehy's debut as the company's artistic director. But, according to the Sheehy, the play is Tass's choice, which is easy to credit: though she's an able enough director, her résumé also points to a weakness for schlock.

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By Andrew Furhmann   |  

The Other Place details

100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004

Telephone 1300 182 183

Nearby Stations: Flinders Street

Price $33.00 to $99.00

Date 26 Jan 2013-02 Mar 2013

Director: Nadia Tass

Cast: Catherine McClements, David Roberts, Heidi Arena, David Whiteley

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