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stage dive

Theater Reviews: Laurie Metcalf, National Treasure! Plus, Mike Birbiglia Strikes Again and a Bloodless Macbeth

Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place; Mike Birbiglia in My Girlfriend's Boyfriend.

The Other Place (Lucille Lortel Theater through April 24)
Last season, Steppenwolf veteran Laurie Metcalf (still best known as Jackie from Roseanne) gave one of the year's most underrated performances in the New Group's revival of A Lie of the Mind as Meg, a rural matriarch who's had the "arch" beaten out of her by life, men, and tragedy, in no particular order. This year, she's back, in Sharr White's The Other Place, with another mother of a role: Juliana, a pharmaceutical researcher with an estranged daughter, a failing marriage, and a life’s work trying to cure degenerative brain disease that she may or may not have — and which may or may not mean that everything we learn from Juliana (including the details about the estranged daughter and the failing marriage) is a distortion.

The endoscopic, inside-out approach of White's script — which places you at the mercy of Juliana’s whip smart, ever-defensive, yet increasingly unreliable perceptions — combines with the precision of Joe Mantello's direction (and immersive design choices by set artist Eugene Lee and sound sculptor Fitz Patton) to give Metcalf the room she needs. And boy, does she fill that room, essentially dismembering Juliana right before our eyes, then putting her back together, with a few pieces missing. It's like watching a master surgeon perform a vivisection on herself.

Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriends Boyfriend (Barrow Street Theater)
Shamble comedian and This American Life mainstay Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me) comes across as less a man, more a throw pillow made out of Linus’s security blanket. “This is the outfit I decided to wear,” he assures us of his rumpled, un-preposessing attire. “I didn’t spill mustard on my real shirt and this is the backup outfit. This was my ‘A’ outfit.” That might encourage you to relax into this throw pillow, but don't get too comfy: Birbiglia — pudgy, poker-faced, nearly impregnable — is a stealth bomber. He keeps his dudespeak in check and, crucially, he doesn’t find himself adorable. Behind his skillful sotto observational humor lurk icily forthright ambivalences about love, fidelity, and, above all, his own ability to win a longstanding argument with the unfairness, irrationality, and absurdity of life, especially as it concerns the plaintiff in the case of Birbiglia v. World. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (a slightly misleading title) is basically an anatomy of a thirtysomething commitmentphobe’s decision not to be alone, despite a lifetime of romantic disappointments stretching back to middle school. Heard this one before? You certainly have, yet Birbiglia’s blend of minimalist physical comedy and hardened sad-sackery freshens up a familiar tale. His transformative journey begins, as it often does for us coastal types, with an apocalyptic trip to L.A., and just watching him mime running for his flight with a recalcitrant roller suitcase delivers a complete visual essay on his main theme: Life is difficult, alone or in pairs. Maybe a little easier in pairs. We’ll see.

Macbeth (The Duke on 42nd Street through April 22)
The weirdest thing about Macbeth is Macbeth: No matter how hard he plays the Übermensch — assassinating his way to the Scottish throne, cutting down friends and benefactors — his villainous acts barely outlive their execution. His plots are clumsy, transparent, and, he’s warned repeatedly, fruitless. In his soliloquies, the very concept of sequential cause and effects seems to throw him for a loop. Life outflanks him over and over again, as he descends into superstition and sputtering: As tyrants go, he’s nearer Qaddafi than, say, Richard III — a little hapless, in other words. That haplessness, unfortunately, is the key feature of Arin Arbus’s dank, airless production, which feels very Celtic Revival .. without the “revival.” John Douglas Thompson, as the gore-stained thane, wastes a lot of energy swinging at shadows, but he only really connects with Annika Boras’s icy-hot Lady Macbeth, a Hitchcock blonde who’s secretly discovered a murderous libido. Everyone else feels smothered under layers of Renfest leather and fusty declamation. (Two notable exceptions: John Christopher Jones, as a wisecracking porter, walks away with the show’s single comic sequence; and Roslyn Ruff’s classy, colloquialized Lady Macduff, in one short scene, made me briefly superimpose a better show over the one I was watching.) By the end, there’s blood on everyone’s hands, but none in their veins. Now comes my fit again: How the hell do you make Macbeth bloodless?

Photo: Joan Marcus (Metcalf)