Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Whirligig - Too many coincidences

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A subtitle for The Whirligig, the new drama by Hamish Linklater, could very well be "Six Degrees of Separation Lite". Presented by The New Group and currently having its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the work offers some fine acting and a rather intriguing narrative, but ultimately fails to deliver the necessary impact.

In a hospital in the Berkshires, a 23-year old woman named Julie (Grace Van Patten) is dying. Her body ravaged by years of drug use coupled with an untreated medical condition. Having reached the acceptance stage of her situation, Julie is far more able to face her impending death than are her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells). One of the most poignant moments in the play occurs when Julie explains to her mom what it will be like for her when she's gone.

Julie’s suffering has caused Kristina to return to the home and family she left seven years earlier. Her marriage to Michael having broken up due to his excessive drinking and her own battle with chronic depression. It having taken Kristina several years to find the right medical “cocktail” to allow her to maintain a reasonable equilibrium.

Julie’s condition has also caused a bit of a stir in this relatively closed-knit community. Particularly among Derrick (Jonny Orsini), an ex-com and the brother of Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s doctor at the hospital. Derrick taking an unexpectedly deep and perhaps not-quite healthy interest in this woman. When Julie is sent home to die, Derrick takes to hiding in a nearby tree in order to peer into her room. Derrick soon joined there by Trish (Zosia Mamet), Julie's former best friend. Kristina having long since deemed Trish persona non grata, due to a major falling out.

There are numerous ways for this tale to unfold, particularly since Orsini adds some delightful comic touches to his performance. Thus making his character a sort of voyeuristic sad sack. Someone trying to get a glimpse into world where he does not belong. It also helps that he has good chemistry with Van Patten in their scenes together.

While Linklater has nicely set the stage by the end of the first act, including a powerful rant by Kristina about never getting to be a grandmother, things start to go off the rails shortly thereafter. With a good chunk of act two told in flashback, we see the circumstances which set Julie on the path to destruction. As well as being treated to glimpses of Michael and Kristina before they got their demons under relative control. However, knowing how the characters will turn out in advance takes away some of the emotional impact of the backstory. Even worse, there are times when the interconnections among the characters, for example Derrick and Patrick, stretch the credibility of the piece to its limits.

Linklater also commits the sin of telling, not showing what is going on with the characters in several key situations. Such as when it comes to Kristina and why she has previously been absent from her daughter's life.

Presenting a world where second chances are almost non-existent, The Whirligig offers a harsh lesson on reaping what you have sewn. Where the only chance to make things better is to put the past aside and move on. Something not always easy to do. A point brought devastatingly home via some alcoholic-induced wisdom by Mr. Cormeny (Jon Devries), an aging social studies teacher at the local high school. He replying to Kristina's question of whether it would have actually made a difference if she had been there for her daughter in the past.

Butz offers a strong blend of comedy and self-loathing as an actor turned teacher with a drinking problem. Wells is very good as someone trying to get her life back together, while still on tether hooks over how it will turn out. Alex Hurt is interesting as Trish’s husband, Greg. An unforgiving sort who sees things a certain way, he fails to understand why others don't have the same uncompromising moral viewpoint he does. He often being the straight man for the other characters' more outlandish behavior. Bean’s character is sadly underwritten throughout and only exists for plot purposes. Mamet resonates well as Julie, with some cute and deliberately awkward scenes with Orsini. Devries gets in some good lines as Cormeny.

Derek McLane’s sets, including a hospital room, local bar and the tree outside Julie’s home, are all strongly brought forth. Scott Elliott’s is good, but it’s hampered by too many explanations in the final scenes, which slow down the forward motion of the show.

Perhaps one day Mr. Linklater will go back and revisit this work. If so, it will certainly be interesting to see what he does. Indeed, Greg and Trish’s story could be a play unto itself. But for now, what’s on stage doesn’t come together when it counts the most.

Featuring: Noah Bean (Patrick), Norbert Leo Butz (Michael), Jon Devries (Mr. Cormeny), Alex Hurt (Greg), Zosia Mamet (Trish), Jonny Orsini (Derrick), Grace Van Patten (Julie), Dolly Wells (Kristina).

The Whirligig
by Hamish Linklater

Scene Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Original Music: Duncan Sheik
Special Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Stage Manager: Valeria A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson: CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Cathy Popowytsch
Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission

Closes: June 18, 2017

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