Say this for actor Hamish Linklater: he writes juicy parts for his fellow actors. He also knows how to set up a sense of community. The New Group production directed by its artistic director Scott Elliott has a fine cast led by two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz and Zosia Mamet, just off six seasons of the recently ended HBO television series, Girls. However, in this play the author has made his story line unnecessarily complicated: too many flashbacks (going back as far as 15 years, but mostly taking place six years before) between the contemporary scenes to fill us in on past events. It is not immediately obvious that the flashbacks are in chronological order. Also the actors do not age even when we see them 15 years apart – which makes it a bit difficult to follow who’s who. We also don’t know enough about most of them to care until almost the very end.
The Whirligig is set in a town in the Berkshires and concerns off-season people who live here year round. Julie Evans Tyler (Grace Van Patten), age 23, is dying from either a drug overdose or mixing pills or both. Her divorced mother Kristina (Dolly Wells), a European History professor at the Hartford University, has returned in order to nurse her. Her father Michael (Butz), a recovering alcoholic who did not leave town after his wife and he separated six years before, teaches theater at nearby Simon’s Rock Junior College and has directed plays at various places.
Greg (Alex Hurt) is the bartender who works at the local watering hole where Michael (now on the wagon) and Mr. Cormeny (DeVries), a 70-year-old alcoholic social studies teacher at the local high school and amateur philosopher, spend a great deal of time. Greg’s wife Trish (Mamet) used to be Julie’s best friend back in high school but they have been estranged for some time. Greg thinks she should rectify that situation now that Julie is ill.
Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s doctor, also used to work in the bar as a part-time bartender but grew up to become the doctor who is treating Julie. His younger brother Derrick (Johnny Orsini) was a friend of Julie’s from the Village (though we don’t know if he means Greenwich or the local town). Got all that? All of these characters feel guilty about Julie’s condition and blame themselves for the way things have turned out. The final scene brings them all together, sorting out all of the seeming mysteries.
Derek McLane’s set design (darkly lighted by Jeff Croiter as if it is all happening at night) makes use of a revolving stage to bring on the various sets in this multi-scened play (the hospital, the bar, Michael’s backyard, Julie’s room, the Tyler’s living room, etc.). The title, “the whirligig,” can refer to something that spins, or something that keeps changing. Whether that is its meaning in the play, Mr. Cormeny describes Michael as being “in a whirligig of grief.” Well-read viewers will recall Shakespeare’s “and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” a line from Twelfth Night, which may be the first use of the word. In any event, Linklater seems to have taken it too literally as we almost get dizzy watching the stage revolve and as more and more encounters between varying combinations of characters take place.
Although they are playing a colorful collection of characters, Linklater has given his actors a serious problem. Not only do they not change or grow, they simply spend the play explaining themselves. However, even so we never learn their backstories. The characters played by Butz, DeVries and Hurt are all alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. The people played by Bean, Mamet, Orsini and Van Patten have all dabbled in hard drugs in their past. Wells as Michael’s ex-wife Kirstina has had a nervous breakdown which left her addicted to anti-depressants. We never really know why any of these people have addictions. Only Wells’ character is allowed any range or development by the playwright in the course of the evening as she travels from illness to health.
Clint Ramos’ costumes have the believably lived-in look that suggest the clothes could have come from the actors’ own wardrobes. Other members of the production team whose work is in evidence are Jeremy Chernick’s special effects design for the tree that appears and disappears and the fight direction of UnkleDave’s Fight-House. While Hamish Linklater has written some wonderful scenes and interesting characters, ultimately The Whirligig is a disappointment due to its tortuous structure.
The Whirligig (extended through June 18, 2017)
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.TheNewGroup.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission