The Whirligig: Am I Pointing My Finger at Myself?
There is no getting away from it. The Whirligig is going to be a play about sickness, and maybe even death. That we know from the moment we walk into the theatre and see a young woman in a hospital bed sleeping silently and ever so still. The stage revolves round and around as she sleeps, giving the air a big dose of heaviness that we can’t escape. And then, all of a sudden, as meticulously directed by The New Group’s artistic director, Scott Elliott (Evening at the Talk House, Avenue Q), a flurry of activity. An energetic creation of spaces, slid together by the entire cast as the play is about to begin. Wisely, the play starts with the scenario we are most curious about: the sick girl in a hospital room surrounded by worried parents.
The young woman is Julie, magnificently played with depth, slyness, and sarcasm by Grace Van Patten (Netflix’s “Tramps”) and it is really her story that is at the center, with all of the others stories revolving around. The set, designed with a simplistic style by Derek McLane (TNG’s Sweet Charity) makes perfect sense as all the stories and connections spin out their scenes for us to examine. The main question seems to reside somewhere in the blame world of: “Who is responsible for Julie’s condition?” Everyone is trying to point the finger in this touching new play by the well known actor and lesser known writer Hamish Linklater (The Steep Theatre’s The Cheats), asking the question that is on everyone’s lips. But it’s who they truly want to point that finger at that feels the most dangerous and upsetting for this crew.
Each and everyone in this spectacularly talented cast is playing their parts with solid authenticity and exactitude, finding the humor and the pathos at every turn. The dialogue is so smart but sometimes so hard to watch, especially the scenes of the father, wondrously portrayed by Tony winner, Norbert Leo Butz (Broadway’s Catch Me If You Can). With so much of this play revolving around alcohol and drug addiction, it’s particularly difficult watching the father, Michael, fall off the wagon into a pit of anger and despair over his daughter’s sickness. Being witness to the fall of Michael is just so terribly sad, especially because his daughter’s fall from grace and health is a result of her own addictive behaviors. And watching on the sidelines is Michael’s AA buddy, the edgy Alex Hurt (Roundabout’s Love, Love, Love, LCT’s Dada Woof Papa Hot) as the slightly dim witted bartender Greg. Greg has been part of the 12 step program for years, and watching him struggle with how to handle what’s spiraling out of control around him is as difficult to watch as it is to understand the ramblings of the drunkard in the bar. Those slurred words belong to a Mr. Cormeny, portrayed by the wonderful Jon Devries (TNG’s Accomplices), a character who’s presence isn’t really explained. He is wasted in a strange unneeded role, sidelined to funny drunk one liners, but never adding much to the mix.
The standout for me is Zosia Mamet (HBO’s “Girls”, MCC’s Really Really) as the former best friend of Julie’s (and wife to bartender Greg), Trish. Her stage presence in both the present tree bound scenes and the miraculously juvenile creations are electric and layered. The older Trish, up in a tree with Derrick, the wonderfully kooky and fascinating Jonny Orsini (The Nance), feels completely authentic and detailed, as the two tell their stories cautiously to one another, not quite sure if they can trust the other. They share in a voyeuristic moment of attachment, gazing at the sleeping Julie, but aren’t quite sure about the stories they are attempting to tell. Trish seems eager to forgo blame or responsibility, while also, somewhere deep inside, there is a layer of self-incriminating pain and guilt with an edge of regret.
In a spectacularly touching flashback scene, years earlier, Trish and Julie hangout on a couch having the kind of conversation only two high school girls could have. Teenage Trish is stoned and hungry, and goes looking for some writing paper in Julie’s bedroom only to discover Julie’s mother, Kristina, played with such skill by Dolly Wells (STARZ’s “Blunt Talk“) sitting perplexed on Julie’s bed. The scene that transpires between these two is just plain magnificent, especially after such a clearly real scene beforehand. It is etched in wit and unadulterated engagement, with a huge dose of stoned honesty. It’s a shame that as a whole, the play doesn’t rise to the same level of solid authenticity as these few moments of connection have given us. That would be powerful, and epic. Because if it did, we’d have something devastating to chew on.
Act I floats along with clever exchanges mixed in with uncomfortable ones, sagging a bit in the middle, but out of the blue, there are moments, like the last scene before the intermission, when it all comes roaring back into focus. The Whirligig is a lot like that drunk guy at the bar, who fades in and out, slurring and muttering in the corner, but every so often, he comes alive with energy and excitement. Saying something profound that it is almost alarming. And when that moment hits, Linklater shows what an expert he is when it comes to writing wry and smart dialogue. The difficulty is with the big picture; that overarching idea that has a hard time coming into focus. The coincidences and the interwoven stories of ‘who knows who’ and what start to feel just a bit too neat and tidy. It’s almost comical how everyone, literally and figuratively, finds themselves gathered together for the final moment of understanding and finger pointing. It is especially silly when the handsome Dr. Patrick, sweetly and gamely played by Noah Bean (PH’s Marjorie Prime) enters at just the right cued moment. It’s good for a laugh, but not so good for cohesion. At these moments, The Whirligig just doesn’t feel as real as so many of the individual scenes scattered around throughout the play. As a whole, it’s convoluted and blurs the deep pain that hovers over these people like the tree branches hanging above. The heart-break comes into focus every so often, but then retreats to the background as the stage and story spin round to the inevitable end. Everyone wants to throw the blame around, mostly at themselves or at one another, but the desire to understand feels as hopeless as finding the preverbal ‘needle in the haystack’. Trish gets it so right, when she dissects this idea. There is no needle, only hay, and lots of it. If only it added up to something more than just its parts and not just a pile of dried grass.