By Samuel L. Leiter
At the opening of The Whirligig, Hamish Linklater’s rambling but often richly listenable new play presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Julie (Grace Van Patten), a 23-year-old drug addict dying from Hep C and stage 5 non-Hodgkin’s, is in a hospital in the Berkshires, where her family lives. Seeking to comfort her are her doleful, divorced parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), who soon bring her home for hospice care.
The hospital bed and its appurtenances are set on a turntable whose movement reflects the play’s title; one scene after the other slides into place as the episodic plot, a bit confusingly at times, mingles flashbacks from as long ago as 15 years with scenes in present time. By the end of Act One we’ve met all eight of the play’s characters, each miserable for one reason or the other, most with or fighting their own addictions, and each with some connection to the dying Julie.
Michael, a wisecracking drama teacher and director, struggles with the bottle; Kristina, a writer and professor on antidepressants, berates herself for failing her daughter. The other characters are Julie’s childhood friend Trish (Zosia Mamet), who turned Julie on to drugs when they were 17, making an enemy of Kristina; Derrick (Jonny Orsini), Julie’s first drug dealer, later imprisoned for possession with intent to sell; Patrick (Noah Bean), Derrick’s brother and, later, Julie’s doctor, with a guilty secret of his own; Greg (Alex Hurt), a reformed alcoholic who not only married Trish but tends the bar where many of the others gather; and, finally, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), a local high school teacher who adds little more to the plot than booze-inspired, comic bloviating.
Much of Act One is occupied with peripheral color—the Red Sox, Russian literature, character exposition, blah, blah—it takes a long time to get an inkling of where the play is going, what the stakes are, or why we should be concerned enough to return for Act Two. Before the act ends, though, Linklater establishes his concern with the issue of pointing fingers, assigning blame, for Julie’s condition, something several guilt-burdened characters seem quite ready to accept.
Gradually, in Act Two, the numerous character interconnections slowly come together to reach a tidy conclusion reminiscent of a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Much as the play may wish the audience to be deeply moved, the artificiality and contrivance of this ending—with the cast lined up too obviously across the stage—stand in the way.
Under Scott Elliott’s direction, the action tends to plod, progressing in tiny increments. However, the dialogue often has a nimble, smartass flavor that, while sometimes registering more as clever stage talk than believable conversation, nevertheless helps sustain interest and spark laughter. There’s also some mildly whimsical if thoroughly implausible business involving Trish and Derrick climbing onto a tree branch to chat while getting stoned, a position they’re forced to remain in for long stretches when other scenes are being performed.
The Whirligig offers considerable meat for its actors to chew on. Noteworthy are Van Patten’s vulnerable yet determined Julie, and Orsini’s appealingly clueless (if inconsistently so) Derrick. Mamet’s Trish is like a slightly slowed-down, smarter version of her Shoshana on Girls. Reliable veterans Butz and DeVries could do with a tad less overdoing.
The Whirligig is given an attractive production, beginning with Derek McLane’s simplified set, with a house’s façade at the back and a hanging bower overhead. Jeff Croiter offers beautiful lighting, there are well-chosen costumes by Clint Ramos, and Duncan Sheik’s original music is nicely attuned to the play’s emotional needs.
Hamish Linklater, best known as an actor, hasn’t struck playwriting gold here but dedicated playgoers may find enough nuggets in its two and a half hours to give The Whirligig a whirl.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).