By Hamish Linklater; Directed by Scott Elliott
Produced by The New Group
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 6.18.17
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Ran Xia on 5.21.17
Dolly Wells, Zosia Mamet, and Jonny Orsini in The Whirligig. Photo by Monique Carboni.
BOTTOM LINE: Secrets unwind like a thread connecting the past and the present in Hamish Linklater's exquisitely moving drama.
Whirligig—an object that spins or whirls; something that is constantly changing. It’s fitting then, that Hamish Linklater’s exquisitely composed play is put on a turntable, with every facet of the narrative bare to the eye. It's a perfect metaphor as well for the mess of questions life poses to its unwilling heroes and heroines, who are left with no choice but to keep spinning in order to remain upright.
Even before The Whirligig begins, we see the dilapidated exterior of an old house in Berkshire County behind a huddle of trees, as if reaching out from the cracks of time. In the foreground is a hospital bed at the edge of the turntable, moving with the mechanical structure yet at the same time suspended in time, beneath a wash of light (Jeff Croiter’s gorgeous lighting design alone makes the play a magical experience). And this is how we meet Julie (Grace Van Patten), the girl in the hospital bed—in silence and stillness.
The rest of the play gradually populates the universe woven around the hospital bed. We learn about Julie’s parents: her mother Kristina (Dolly Wells), a British scholar and author, has divorced her father Michael (Norbert Leo Butz), a drama teacher who tries his best to lighten the mood. The turntable spins, and over a conversation between Julie’s doctor Patrick (Noah Bean), Patrick's brother Derrick (Jonny Orsini), we learn why Julie is dying, and that Derrick, who may be more than he first appears, seems to recognize Julie's address. Another spin and we’re at the bar that Michael used to frequent, caught up in a drunken debate between Mr. Cormeny (Don Devries) and Greg the bartender (Alex Hurt); Greg’s wife Trish (Zosia Mamet) used to be Julie’s best friend. Past and present blend into a bittersweet swirl as various characters from Julie’s life are brought together, and thus begins a game of laying blame after they realize that Julie's illness is a result of her drug use.
Director Scott Elliott has a way of clarifying the play's labyrinthine connections. The meticulously constructed set also helps to elaborate the memories. Time spins backwards around the characters; each develops with sympathy and has their own complex background. While the plot unfolds around Julie’s ailment, the play has the commendable quality of being almost a three-dimensional object that you can take with you after it ends. The almost-too-perfect connections between the characters don’t feel like forced dramatic convention, but stranger-than-fiction reality that makes perfect sense. Everything fits together organically to propel the narrative forward, without being singularly overwhelming.
An ensemble of masterful actors also perfects the intimacy. Butz perfectly embodies the passionate father who’s stricken by the pain of slowly losing a child, while as Julie's mother, Wells delivers a more introspective personality. Van Patten effortlessly goes from a frail, shadow-like figure who is the elephant in the room to a robust teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Mamet and Orsini are a delightful pair as two strangers who connect on a tree branch in order to watch Julie from her bedroom window, unseen by the parents. You may well fall in love with each of the familiar figures before you know it, because rather than meeting them for the first time, you recognize them from your memories.
I had much expectation for The Whirligig, due to my fond memories of Linklater’s The Vandal a few years ago at the Flea, another deeply compassionate play that tickles you with its wit and ultimately punches you in the heart with its humanity. And The Whirligig does not disappoint. The play is a thoughtful balance of characters and plot, an intricate design without a single wasted stoke. Each loose end gets tied up, and everything has a satisfying payoff. It also beautifully imitates a Greek tragedy, with its inevitable end and its focus on the journey before the final resolution. If you enjoy the TV show This Is Us, The Whirligig has a similarly elegant storytelling that spans two generations of sweet and sorrow.
Like any good play, The Whirligig is not just about one singular thing. The story plants a seed in your heart, from which a story blossoms like a brilliant flower. It juxtaposes the concept of fate, the randomness of life, and the interconnection of individuals, both coincidental and inevitable. Like life itself, The Whirligig shows that order and chaos are but two sides of the same coin. And ultimately, its protagonists' resignation to their defeat becomes a triumph.
(The Whirligig plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through June 18, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $75 - $120 and are available at thenewgroup.org.)
The Whirligig is by Hamish Linklater. Directed by Scott Elliott. Set Design is by Derek McLane. Costume Design is by Clint Ramos. Lighting Design is by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design is by M.L. Dogg. Original Music is by Duncan Sheik, Special Effects Design is by Jeremy Chernick. Fight Direction is by UnkleDave's Fight-House. Production Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson.
The cast is Noah Bean, Norbert Leo Butz, Jon DeVries, Alex Hurt, Zosia Mamet, Jonny Orsini, Grace Van Patten, and Dolly Wells.